The Giant of the North, or, Pokings Round The Pole, by R.M. Ballantyne.
Robert Michael Ballantyne was born in 1825 and died in 1894. He was educated at the Edinburgh Academy, and in 1841 he became a clerk with the Hudson Bay Company, working at the Red River Settlement in Northen Canada until 1847, arriving back in Edinburgh in 1848. The letters he had written home were very amusing in their description of backwoods life, and his family publishing connections suggested that he should construct a book based on these letters. Three of his most enduring books were written over the next decade, "The Young Fur Traders", "Ungava", "The Hudson Bay Company", and were based on his experiences with the H.B.C. In this period he also wrote "The Coral island" and "Martin Rattler", both of these taking place in places never visited by Ballantyne. Having been chided for small mistakes he made in these books, he resolved always to visit the places he wrote about. With these books he became known as a great master of literature intended for teenagers. He researched the Cornish Mines, the London Fire Brigade, the Postal Service, the Railways, the laying down of submarine telegraph cables, the construction of light-houses, the light-ship service, the life-boat service, South Africa, Norway, the North Sea fishing fleet, ballooning, deep-sea diving, Algiers, and many more, experiencing the lives of the men and women in these settings by living with them for weeks and months at a time, and he lived as they lived.
He was a very true-to-life author, depicting the often squalid scenes he encountered with great care and attention to detail. His young readers looked forward eagerly to his next books, and through the 1860s and 1870s there was a flow of books from his pen, sometimes four in a year, all very good reading. The rate of production diminished in the last ten or fifteen years of his life, but the quality never failed.
He published over ninety books under his own name, and a few books for very young children under the pseudonym "Comus".
For today's taste his books are perhaps a little too religious, and what we would nowadays call "pi". In part that was the way people wrote in those days, but more important was the fact that in his days at the Red River Settlement, in the wilds of Canada, he had been a little dissolute, and he did not want his young readers to be unmindful of how they ought to behave, as he felt he had been.
Some of his books were quite short, little over 100 pages. These books formed a series intended for the children of poorer parents, having less pocket-money. These books are particularly well-written and researched, because he wanted that readership to get the very best possible for their money. They were published as six series, three books in each series.
While Ballantyne had some acqaintance with the Eskimo during his years with the Hudson Bay Company, this book runs a little into the fantastical. The head of the family who are the heroes of the book has the belief that there is a sea of ever-warm water surrounding the North Pole, and that there are islands there abounding in animal life, and colonised by the Eskimos. The plan is to visit these islands, and stand upon the actual North Pole, which they find to be a low eminence near to the hut of a descendant of a seaman of the original Hudson expedition in 1611.
The story is very well-told, and you find yourself almost believing the Captain's logic. The tension is maintained right up to the last chapter, so much so that we do not learn whether the family, who have by this time all become endeared to us, ever get home to England, and what the father and mother of the Captain's nephews have to say about their sons' adventures.
Created as an e-Text by Nick Hodson, August 2003.
THE GIANT OF THE NORTH, OR, POKINGS ROUND THE POLE, BY R.M. BALLANTYNE.
INTRODUCES OUR HERO AND HIS KINDRED.
The Giant was an Eskimo of the Arctic regions. At the beginning of his career he was known among his kindred by the name of Skreekinbroot, or the howler, because he howled oftener and more furiously than any infant that had ever been born in Arctic land. His proper name, however, was Chingatok, though his familiars still ventured occasionally to style him Skreekinbroot.
Now it must not be supposed that our giant was one of those ridiculous myths of the nursery, with monstrous heads and savage hearts, who live on human flesh, and finally receive their deserts at the hands of famous giant-killing Jacks. No! Chingatok was a real man of moderate size— not more than seven feet two in his sealskin boots—with a lithe, handsome figure, immense chest and shoulders, a gentle disposition, and a fine, though flattish countenance, which was sometimes grave with thought, at other times rippling with fun.
We mention the howling characteristic of his babyhood because it was, in early life, the only indication of the grand spirit that dwelt within him—the solitary evidence of the tremendous energy with which he was endowed. At first he was no bigger than an ordinary infant. He was, perhaps, a little fatter, but not larger, and there was not an oily man or woman of the tribe to which he belonged who would have noticed anything peculiar about him if he had only kept moderately quiet; but this he would not or could not do. His mouth was his safety-valve. His spirit seemed to have been born big at once. It was far too large for his infant body, and could only find relief from the little plump dwelling in which it was at first enshrined by rushing out at the mouth. The shrieks of pigs were trifles to the yelling of that Eskimo child's impatience. The caterwauling of cats was as nothing to the growls of his disgust. The angry voice of the Polar bear was a mere chirp compared with the furious howling of his disappointment, and the barking of a mad walrus was music to the roaring of his wrath.
Every one, except his mother, wished him dead and buried in the centre of an iceberg or at the bottom of the Polar Sea. His mother—squat, solid, pleasant-faced, and mild—alone put up with his ways with that long-suffering endurance which is characteristic of mothers. Nothing could disturb the serenity of Toolooha. When the young giant, (that was to be), roared, she fondled him; if that was ineffectual, she gave him a walrus tusk or a seal's flipper to play with; if that did not suffice, she handed him a lump of blubber to suck; if that failed, as was sometimes the case, she gambolled with him on the floor of her snow-hut, and rubbed his oily visage lovingly over her not less oleaginous countenance. Need we enlarge on this point? Have not all mothers acted thus, or similarly, in all times and climes?
From pole to pole a mother's soul Is tender, strong, and true; Whether the loved be good or bad— White, yellow, black, or blue.
But Toolooha's love was wise as well as strong. If all else failed, she was wont to apply corporal punishment, and whacked her baby with her tail. Be not shocked, reader. We refer to the tail of her coat, which was so long that it trailed on the ground, and had a flap at the end which produced surprising results when properly applied.
But the howling condition of life did not last long.
At the age of five years little Chingatok began to grow unusually fast, and when he reached the age of seven, the tribe took note of him as a more than promising youth. Then the grand spirit, which had hitherto sought to vent itself in yells and murderous assaults on its doting mother, spent its energies in more noble action. All the little boys of his size, although much older than himself, began to look up to him as a champion. None went so boldly into mimic warfare with the walrus and the bear as Chingatok. No one could make toy sledges out of inferior and scanty materials so well as he. If any little one wanted a succourer in distress, Skreekinbroot was the lad to whom he, or she, turned. If a broken toy had to be mended, Chingatok could do it better than any other boy. And so it went on until he became a man and a giant.
When he was merely a big boy—that is, bigger than the largest man of his tribe—he went out with the other braves to hunt and fish, and signalised himself by the reckless manner in which he would attack the polar bear single-handed; but when he reached his full height and breadth he gave up reckless acts, restrained his tendency to display his great strength, and became unusually modest and thoughtful, even pensive, for an Eskimo.
The superiority of Chingatok's mind, as well as his body, soon became manifest. Even among savages, intellectual power commands respect. When coupled with physical force it elicits reverence. The young giant soon became an oracle and a leading man in his tribe. Those who had wished him dead, and in the centre of an iceberg or at the bottom of the Polar Sea, came to wish that there were only a few more men like him.
Of course he had one or two enemies. Who has not? There were a few who envied him his physical powers. There were some who envied him his moral influence. None envied him his intellectual superiority, for they did not understand it. There was one who not only envied but hated him. This was Eemerk, a mean-spirited, narrow-minded fellow, who could not bear to play what is styled second fiddle.
Eemerk was big enough—over six feet—but he wanted to be bigger. He was stout enough, but wanted to be stouter. He was influential too, but wanted to reign supreme. This, of course, was not possible while there existed a taller, stouter, and cleverer man than himself. Even if Eemerk had been the equal of Chingatok in all these respects, there would still have remained one difference of character which would have rendered equality impossible.
It was this: our young giant was unselfish and modest. Eemerk was selfish and vain-glorious. When the latter killed a seal he always kept the tit-bits for himself. Chingatok gave them to his mother, or to any one else who had a mind to have them. And so in regard to everything.
Chingatok was not a native of the region in which we introduce him to the reader. He and the tribe, or rather part of the tribe, to which he belonged, had travelled from the far north; so far north that nobody knew the name of the land from which they had come. Even Chingatok himself did not know it. Being unacquainted with geography, he knew no more about his position on the face of this globe than a field-mouse or a sparrow.
But the young giant had heard a strange rumour, while in his far-off country, which had caused his strong intellect to ponder, and his huge heart to beat high. Tribes who dwelt far to the south of his northern home had told him that other tribes, still further south, had declared that the people who dwelt to the south of them had met with a race of men who came to them over the sea on floating islands; that these islands had something like trees growing out of them, and wings which moved about, which folded and expanded somewhat like the wings of the sea-gull; that these men's faces were whiter than Eskimo faces; that they wore skins of a much more curious kind than sealskins, and that they were amazingly clever with their hands, talked a language that no one could understand, and did many wonderful things that nobody could comprehend.
A longing, wistful expression used to steal over Chingatok's face as he gazed at the southern horizon while listening to these strange rumours, and a very slight smile of incredulity had glimmered on his visage, when it was told him that one of the floating islands of these Kablunets, or white men, had been seen with a burning mountain in the middle of it, which vomited forth smoke and fire, and sometimes uttered a furious hissing or shrieking sound, not unlike his own voice when he was a Skreekinbroot.
The giant said little about these and other subjects, but thought deeply. His mind, as we have said, was far ahead of his time and condition. Let us listen to some of the disjointed thoughts that perplexed this man.
"Who made me?" he asked in a low tone, when floating alone one day in his kayak, or skin canoe, "whence came I? whither go I? What is this great sea on which I float? that land on which I tread? No sledge, no spear, no kayak, no snow-hut makes itself! Who made all that which I behold?"
Chingatok looked around him, but no audible answer came from Nature. He looked up, but the glorious sun only dazzled his eyes.
"There must be One," he continued in a lower tone, "who made all things; but who made Him? No one? It is impossible! The Maker must have ever been. Ever been!" He repeated this once or twice with a look of perplexed gravity.
The northern savage had grasped the grand mystery, and, like all true philosophers savage or civilised who have gone before him, relapsed into silence.
At last he resolved to travel south, until he should arrive at the coasts where these strange sights before described were said to have been seen.
Having made up his mind, Chingatok began his arrangements without delay; persuaded a few families of his tribe to accompany him, and reached the north-western shores of Greenland after a long and trying journey by water and ice.
Here he spent the winter. When spring came, he continued his journey south, and at last began to look out, with sanguine expectation, for the floating islands with wings, and the larger island with the burning mountain on it, about which he had heard.
Of course, on his way south, our giant fell in with some members of the tribes through whom the rumours that puzzled him had been transmitted to the far north; and, as he advanced, these rumours took a more definite, also a more correct, form. In time he came to understand that the floating islands were gigantic kayaks, or canoes, with masts and sails, instead of trees and wings. The burning mountain, however, remained an unmodified mystery, which he was still inclined to disbelieve. But these more correct views did not in the least abate Chingatok's eager desire to behold, with his own eyes, the strange men from the unknown south.
Eemerk formed one of the party who had volunteered to join Chingatok on this journey. Not that Eemerk was influenced by large-minded views or a thirst for knowledge, but he could not bear the thought that his rival should have all the honour of going forth on a long journey of exploration to the mysterious south, a journey which was sure to be full of adventure, and the successful accomplishment of which would unquestionably raise him very much in the estimation of his tribe.
Eemerk had volunteered to go, not as second in command, but as an independent member of the party—a sort of free-lance. Chingatok did not quite relish having Eemerk for a companion, but, being a good-humoured, easy-going fellow, he made no objection to his going. Eemerk took his wife with him. Chingatok took his mother and little sister; also a young woman named Tekkona, who was his wife's sister. These were the only females of the exploring party. Chingatok had left his wife behind him, because she was not robust at that time; besides, she was very small—as is usually the case with giants' wives—and he was remarkably fond of her, and feared to expose her to severe fatigue and danger.
The completed party of explorers numbered twenty souls, with their respective bodies, some of which latter were large, some small, but all strong and healthy. Four of the men were friends of Eemerk, whom he had induced to join because he knew them to be kindred spirits who would support him.
"I go to the ice-cliff to look upon the sea," said Chingatok one morning, drawing himself up to his full height, and unconsciously brushing some of the lamp-black off the roof of his hut with the hood of his sealskin coat.
At this point it may be well to explain, once for all, that our giant did not speak English, and as it is highly improbable that the reader understands the Eskimo tongue, we will translate as literally as possible—merely remarking that Chingatok's language, like his mind, was of a superior cast.
"Why goes my son to the ice-cliff?" asked Toolooha in a slightly reproachful tone. "Are not the floes nearer? Can he not look on the great salt lake from the hummocks? The sun has been hot a long time now. The ice-cliffs are dangerous. Their edges split off every day. If my son goes often to them, he will one day come tumbling down upon the floes and be crushed flat, and men will carry him to his mother's feet like a mass of shapeless blubber."
It is interesting to note how strong a resemblance there is in sentiment and modes of thought between different members of the human family. This untutored savage, this Polar giant, replied, in the Eskimo tongue, words which may be freely translated—"Never fear, mother, I know how to take care of myself."
Had he been an Englishman, he could not have expressed himself more naturally. He smiled as he looked down at his stout and genial mother, while she stooped and drew forth a choice morsel of walrus flesh from one of her boots. Eskimo ladies wear enormous sealskin boots the whole length of their legs. The tops of these boots are made extremely wide, for the purpose of stowing away blubber, or babies, or other odd articles that might encumber their hands.
Chingatok seemed the personification of savage dignity as he stood there, leaning on a short walrus spear. Evidently his little mother doted on him. So did Oblooria, a pretty little girl of about sixteen, who was his only sister, and the counterpart of her mother, hairy coat and tail included, only a few sizes smaller.
But Chingatok's dignity was marred somewhat when he went down on his hands and knees, in order to crawl through the low snow-tunnel which was the only mode of egress from the snow-hut.
Emerging at the outer end of the tunnel, he stood up, drew the hood of his sealskin coat over his head, shouldered his spear, and went off with huge and rapid strides over the frozen billows of the Arctic Sea.
Spring was far advanced at the time of which we write, and the sun shone not only with dazzling brilliancy, but with intense power on the fields of ice which still held the ocean in their cold unyielding embrace. The previous winter had been unusually severe, and the ice showed little or no sign of breaking up, except at a great distance from land, where the heaving of the waves had cracked it up into large fields. These were gradually parting from the main body, and drifting away with surface-currents to southern waters, there to be liquefied and re-united to their parent sea.
The particular part of the Greenland coast to which the giant went in his ramble is marked by tremendous cliffs descending perpendicularly into the water. These, at one part, are divided by a valley tilled with a great glacier, which flows from the mountains of the interior with a steep declivity to the sea, into which it thrusts its tongue, or extreme end. This mighty river of ice completely fills the valley from side to side, being more than two miles in width and many hundred feet thick. It seems as solid and motionless as the rocks that hem it in, nevertheless the markings on the surface resemble the currents and eddies of a stream which has been suddenly frozen in the act of flowing, and if you were to watch it narrowly, day by day, and week by week, you would perceive, by the changed position of objects on its surface, that it does actually advance or flow towards the sea. A further proof of this advance is, that although the tongue is constantly shedding off large icebergs, it is never much decreased in extent, being pushed out continuously by the ice which is behind. In fact, it is this pushing process which causes the end of the tongue to shed its bergs, because, when the point is thrust into deep water and floats, the motion of the sea cracks the floating mass off from that pail which is still aground, and lets it drift away.
Now it was to these ice-cliffs that the somewhat reckless giant betook himself. Although not well acquainted with that region, or fully alive to the extent of the danger incurred, his knowledge was sufficient to render him cautious in the selection of the position which should form his outlook.
And a magnificent sight indeed presented itself when he took his stand among the glittering pinnacles. Far as the eye could reach, the sea lay stretched in the sunshine, calm as a mill-pond, and sparkling with ice-jewels of every shape and size. An Arctic haze, dry and sunny, seemed to float over all like golden gauze. Not only was the sun encircled by a beautiful halo, but also by those lovely lights of the Arctic regions known as parhelia, or mock-suns. Four of these made no mean display in emulation of their great original. On the horizon, refraction caused the ice-floes and bergs to present endless variety of fantastic forms, and in the immediate foreground—at the giant's feet— tremendous precipices of ice went sheer down into the deep water, while, away to the right, where a bay still retained its winter grasp of an ice-field, could be seen, like white bee-hives, the temporary snow-huts of these wandering Eskimos.
Well might the eye, as well as the head, of the so-called savage rise upwards while he pondered the great mystery of the Maker of all! As he stood on the giddy ledge, rapt in contemplation, an event occurred which was fitted to deepen the solemnity of his thoughts. Not twenty yards from the point on which he stood, a great ice-cliff—the size of an average house—snapped off with a rending crash, and went thundering down into the deep, which seemed to boil and heave with sentient emotion as it received the mass, and swallowed it in a turmoil indescribable.
Chingatok sprang from his post and sought a safer but not less lofty outlook, while the new-born berg, rising from the sea, swayed majestically to and fro in its new-found cradle.
"It is not understandable," muttered the giant as he took up his new position and gazed with feelings of awe upon the grand scene. "I wonder if the pale-faced men in the floating islands think much about these things. Perhaps they dwell in a land which is still more wonderful than this, and hunt the walrus and the seal like us. It is said they come for nothing else but to see our land and find out what is in it. Why should I not go to see their land? My kayak is large, though it has no wings. The land may be far off, but am I not strong? They are pale-faced; perhaps the reason is that they are starved. That must be so, else they would not leave their home. I might bring some of the poor creatures to this happy land of ours, where there is always plenty to eat. They might send messengers for their relations to come and dwell with us. I will speak to mother about that; she is wise!"
Like a dutiful son, the giant turned on his heel, descended the cliffs, and went straight home to consult with his mother.
UNEXPECTED MEETINGS, ALARMS, AND CONFIDENCES.
"Mother, I have been thinking," said Chingatok, as he crept into his hut and sat down on a raised bench of moss.
"That is not news, my son; you think much. You are not like other men. They think little and eat much."
The stout little woman looked up through the smoke of her cooking-lamp and smiled, but her big son was too much absorbed in his thoughts to observe her pleasantry, so she continued the cooking of a walrus chop in silence.
"The Kablunets are not to be seen, mother," resumed Chingatok. "I have looked for them every day for a long time, and begin to weary. My thought is now to launch my kayak when we come to open water, load it with meat, take four spears and more lines than a strong hunter needs for a whole season; then paddle away south to discover the land of the Kablunets. They must be poor; they may be starving. I will guide them to our home, and show them this land of plenty."
He paused abruptly, and looked at his mother with solemn anxiety, for he was well aware that he had given her food for profound reflection.
We feel tempted here to repeat our remark about the strong resemblance between different members of the human family, but refrain.
This untutored woman of the Arctic lands met her son's proposition with the well-known reply of many civilised persons.
"Of what use would it be, my son? No good can come of searching out these poor lands. You cannot benefit the miserable Kablunets. Perhaps they are savage and fierce; and you are sure to meet with dangers by the way. Worse—you may die!"
"Mother," returned Chingatok, "when the white bear stands up with his claws above my head and his mouth a-gape, does my hand tremble or my spear fail?"
"No, my son."
"Then why do you speak to me of danger and death?"
Toolooha was not gifted with argumentative powers. She relapsed into silence and lamp-smoke.
But her son was not to be so easily dissuaded. He adopted a line of reasoning which never failed.
"Mother," he said, sadly, "it may be that you are right, and I am of too fearful a spirit to venture far away from you by myself; I will remain here if you think me a coward."
"Don't say so, Chingatok. You know what I think. Go, if you must go, but who will hunt for your poor old mother when you are gone?"
This was an appeal which the astute little woman knew to be very powerful with her son. She buried her head in the smoke again, and left the question to simmer.
Chingatok was tender-hearted. He said nothing, but, as usual, he thought much, as he gazed in a contemplative manner at his oily parent, and there is no saying to what lengths of self-sacrifice he would have gone if he had not been aroused, and his thoughts scattered to the winds, by a yell so tremendous that it might well have petrified him on the spot. But it did nothing of the kind. It only caused him to drop on his knees, dart through the tunnel like an eel, spring into the open air like an electrified rabbit from its burrow, and stand up with a look of blazing interrogation on his huge countenance.
The cry had been uttered by his bosom friend and former playmate Oolichuk, who came running towards him with frantic gesticulations.
"The Kablunets!" he gasped, "the white-faces have come!—on a floating island!—alive!—smoking!—it is all true!"
"Where?" demanded our giant, whose face blazed up at once.
"There!" cried Oolichuk, pointing seaward towards the ice-hummocks with both hands, and glaring up at his friend.
Without another word Chingatok ran off in the direction pointed out, followed hotly by his friend.
Oolichuk was a large and powerful man, but, his legs were remarkably short. His pace, compared with that of Chingatok, was as that of a sparrow to an ostrich. Nevertheless he kept up, for he was agile and vigorous.
"Have you seen them—have you spoken?" asked the giant, abruptly.
"Yes, all the tribe was there."
"No one killed?"
"No, but terribly frightened; they made me run home to fetch you."
Chingatok increased his speed. So did Oolichuk.
While they run, let us leap a little ahead of them, reader, and see what had caused all the excitement.
The whole party had gone off that morning, with the exception of Chingatok and his mother, to spear seals in a neighbouring bay, where these animals had been discovered in great numbers. Dogs and sledges had been taken, because a successful hunt was expected, and the ice was sufficiently firm.
The bay was very large. At its distant southern extremity there rose a great promontory which jutted far out into the sea. While the men were busy there making preparations to begin the hunt, Oblooria, Chingatok's little sister, amused herself by mounting a hummock of ice about thirty feet high.
When there, she chanced to look towards the promontory. Instantly she opened her eyes and mouth and uttered a squeal that brought her friends running to her side.
Oolichuk was the first to reach her. He had no need to ask questions. Oblooria's gaze directed his, and there, coming round the promontory, he beheld an object which had never before filled his wondering eyes. It was, apparently, a monstrous creature with a dark body and towering wings, and a black thing in its middle, from which were vomited volumes of smoke.
"Kablunets! white men!" he yelled.
"Kablunets!—huk! huk!" echoed the whole tribe, as they scrambled up the ice-hill one after another.
And they were right. A vessel of the pale-faces had penetrated these northern solitudes, and was advancing swiftly before a light breeze under sail and steam.
Despite the preparation their minds had received, and the fact that they were out in search of these very people, this sudden appearance of them filled most of the Eskimos with alarm—some of them with absolute terror, insomuch that the term "pale-face" became most appropriate to themselves.
"What shall we do?" exclaimed Akeetolik, one of the men.
"Fly!" cried Ivitchuk, another of the men, whose natural courage was not high.
"No; let us stay and behold!" said Oolichuk, with a look of contempt at his timid comrade.
"Yes, stay and see," said Eemerk sternly.
"But they will kill us," faltered the young woman, whom we have already mentioned by the name of Tekkona.
"No—no one would kill you," said Eemerk gallantly; "they would only carry you off and keep you."
While they conversed with eager, anxious looks, the steam yacht—for such she was—advanced rapidly, threading her way among the ice-fields and floes with graceful rapidity and ease, to the unutterable amazement of the natives. Although her sails were spread to catch the light breeze, her chief motive power at the time was a screw-propeller.
"Yes, it must be alive," said Oolichuk to Akeetolik, with a look of solemn awe. "The white men do not paddle. They could not lift paddles big enough to move such a great oomiak," [see Note 1], "and the wind is not strong; it could not blow them so fast. See, the oomiak has a tail—and wags it!"
"Oh! do let us run away!" whispered the trembling Oblooria, as she took shelter behind Tekkona.
"No, no," said the latter, who was brave as well as pretty, "we need not fear. Our men will take care of us."
"I wish that Chingatok was here!" whimpered poor little Oblooria, nestling closer to Tekkona and grasping her tail, "he fears nothing and nobody."
"Ay," assented Tekkona with a peculiar smile, "and is brave enough to fight everything and everybody."
"Does Oblooria think that no one can fight but the giant?" whispered Oolichuk, who stood nearest to the little maid.
He drew a knife made of bone from his boot, where it usually lay concealed, and flourished it, with a broad grin. The girl laughed, blushed slightly, and, looking down, toyed with the sleeve of Tekkona's fur coat.
Meanwhile the yacht drew near to the floe on which our Eskimos were grouped. The ice was cracked right across, leaving a lane of open water about ten feet wide between its inner edge and the shore ice. The Eskimos stood on the land side of this crack, a hundred yards or so from it. On nearing the floe the strange vessel checked her speed.
"It moves its wings!" exclaimed Eemerk.
"And turns its side to us," said Akeetolik.
"And wags its tail no more," cried Oolichuk.
"Oh! do, do let us run away," gasped Oblooria.
"No, no, we will not run," said Tekkona.
At that moment a white cloud burst from the side of the yacht.
"Hi! hee! huk!" shouted the whole tribe in amazement.
A crash followed which not only rattled like thunder among the surrounding cliffs, but went like electric fire to the central marrow of each Eskimo. With a united yell of terror, they leaped three feet into the air—more or less—turned about, and fled. Tekkona, who was active as a young deer, herself took the lead; and Oblooria, whose limbs trembled so that she could hardly run, held on to Oolichuk, who gallantly dragged her along. The terror was increased by a prolonged screech from the steam-whistle. It was a wild scramble in sudden panic. The Eskimos reached their sledges, harnessed their teams, left their spears on the ice, cracked their whips, which caused the dogs to join in the yelling chorus, and made for the land at a furious gallop.
But their fear began to evaporate in a few minutes, and Oolichuk was the first to check his pace.
"Ho! stop," he cried.
Eemerk looked back, saw that they were not pursued, and pulled up. The others followed suit, and soon the fugitives were seen by those on board the yacht grouped together and gazing intently at them from the top of another ice-hummock.
The effect of the cannon-shot on board the yacht itself was somewhat startling. The gun had been loaded on the other side of the promontory for the purpose of being fired if Eskimos were not visible on the coast beyond, in order to attract them from the interior, if they should chance to be there. When, however, the natives were discovered on the ice, the gun was, of course, unnecessary, and had been forgotten. It therefore burst upon the crew with a shock of surprise, and caused the Captain, who was in the cabin at the moment, to shoot up from the hatchway like a Jack-in-the-box.
"Who did that?" he demanded, looking round sternly.
The crew, who had been gazing intently at the natives, did not know.
"I really cannot tell, sir," said the chief mate, touching his cap.
Two strapping youths—one about sixteen, the other eighteen—leaned over the side and paid no regard to the question; but it was obvious, from the heaving motion of their shoulders, that they were not so much absorbed in contemplation as they pretended to be.
"Come, Leo, Alf, you know something about this."
The Captain was a large powerful man of about forty, with bushy iron-grey curls, a huge beard, and an aquiline nose. The two youths turned to him at once, and Leo, the eldest, said respectfully, "We did not see it done, uncle, but—but we think—"
"Well, what do you think?"
At that moment a delicate-looking, slender lad, about twelve years of age, with fair curly hair, and flashing blue eyes, stepped out from behind the funnel, which had hitherto concealed him, and said boldly, though blushingly—
"I did it, father."
"Ha! just like you; why did you do it? eh!"
"I can hardly tell, father," said the boy, endeavouring to choke a laugh, "but the Eskimos looked so funny, and I—I had a box of matches in my pocket, and—and—I thought a shot would make them look so very much funnier, and—and—I was right!"
"Well, Benjamin, you may go below, and remain there till further orders."
When Captain Vane called his son "Benjamin," he was seriously displeased. At other times he called him Benjy.
"Yes, father," replied the boy, with a very bad grace, and down he went in a state of rebellious despair, for he was wildly anxious to witness all that went on.
His despair was abated, however, when, in the course of a few minutes, the yacht swung round so as to present her stern to the shore, and remained in that position, enabling him to observe proceedings from the cabin windows almost as well as if he had been on deck. He was not aware that his father, knowing his son's nature, and wishing to temper discipline with mercy, had placed the vessel in that position for his special benefit!
The difficulty now was, how to attract the natives, and inspire them with confidence in the good intentions of their visitors. In any case this would have been a difficult matter, but the firing of that unlucky gun had increased the difficulty tenfold. When, however, Captain Vane saw the natives cease their mad flight, and turn to gaze at the vessel, his hopes revived, and he set about a series of ingenious efforts to attain his end.
First of all, he sent a boat in charge of his two nephews, Leonard and Alphonse Vandervell, to set up a small table on the ice, on which were temptingly arranged various presents, consisting of knives, beads, looking-glasses, and articles of clothing. Having done this, they retired, like wary anglers, to watch for a bite. But the fish would not rise, though they observed the proceedings with profound attention from the distant hummock. After waiting a couple of hours, the navigators removed the table and left an Eskimo dog in its place, with a string of blue beads tied round its neck. But this bait also failed.
"Try something emblematic, uncle," suggested Leonard, the elder of the brothers before mentioned.
"And get Benjy to manufacture it," said Alphonse.
As Benjy was possessed of the most fertile imagination on board, he was released from punishment and brought on deck. The result of his effort of genius was the creation of a huge white calico flag, on which were painted roughly the figure of a sailor and an Eskimo sitting on an iceberg, with a kettle of soup between them. On one side were a pair of hands clasped together; on the other a sprig of heath, the only shrub that could be seen on the shore.
"Splendid!" exclaimed Leo and Alf in the same breath, as they held the flag up to view.
"You'll become a Royal Academician if you cultivate your talents, Benjy," said the Captain, who was proud, as well as fond, of this his only child.
The boy said nothing, but a pleased expression and a twinkle in his eyes proved that he was susceptible to flattery, though not carried off his legs by it.
The banner with the strange device was fixed to a pole which was erected on an ice-hummock between the ship and the shore, and a bag containing presents was hung at the foot of it.
Still these Eskimo fish would not bite, though they "rose" at the flag.
Oolichuk's curiosity had become so intense that he could not resist it. He advanced alone, very warily, and looked at it, but did not dare to touch it. Soon he was joined by Eemerk and the others. Seeing this, Captain Vane sent to meet them an interpreter whom he had procured at one of the Greenland settlements in passing. Just as this man, whose name was Anders, stepped into the boat alongside, it occurred to the Eskimos that their leader should be sent for. Oolichuk undertook to fetch him; he ran back to the sledges, harnessed a small team, and set off like the wind. Thus it came to pass that Chingatok and his mother were startled by a yell, as before mentioned.
Meanwhile Anders was put on the ice, and advanced alone and unarmed towards the canal, or chasm, which separated the parties. He carried a small white flag and a bag containing presents. Innocent-looking and defenceless though he was, however, the Eskimos approached him with hesitating and slow steps, regarding every motion of the interpreter with suspicion, and frequently stooping to thrust their hands into their boots, in which they all carried knives.
At last, when within hearing, Anders shouted a peaceful message, and there was much hallooing and gesticulation among the natives, but nothing comprehensible came of it. After a time Anders thought he recognised words of a dialect with which he was acquainted, and to his satisfaction found that they understood him.
"Kakeite! kakeite!—come on, come on," he cried, holding up the present.
"Nakrie! nakrie!—no, no, go away—you want to kill us," answered the doubtful natives.
Thereupon Anders protested that nothing was further from his thoughts, that he was a man and a friend, and had a mother like themselves, and that he wanted to please them.
At this Eemerk approached to the edge of the canal, and, drawing a knife from his boot, said, "Go away! I can kill you."
Nothing daunted, Anders said he was not afraid, and taking a good English knife from his bag threw it across the canal.
Eemerk picked it up, and was so pleased that he exclaimed, "Heigh-yaw! heigh-yaw!" joyously, and pulled his nose several times. Anders, understanding this to be a sign of friendship, immediately pulled his own nose, smiled, and threw several trinkets and articles of clothing to the other natives, who had by that time drawn together in a group, and were chattering in great surprise at the things presented. Ivitchuk was perhaps the most excited among them. He chanced to get hold of a round hox, in the lid of which was a mirror. On beholding himself looking at himself, he made such an awful face that he dropt the glass and sprang backward, tripping up poor Oblooria in the act, and tumbling over her.
This was greeted with a shout of laughter, and Anders, now believing that friendly relations had been established, went to the boat for a plank to bridge the chasm. As Leo and Alf assisted him to carry the plank, the natives again became grave and anxious.
"Stop!" shouted Eemerk, "you want to kill us. What great creature is that? Does it come from the moon or the sun? Does it eat fire and smoke?"
"No, it is only a dead thing. It is a wooden house."
"You lie!" cried the polite Eemerk, "it shakes its wings. It vomits fire and smoke. It has a tail, and wags it."
While speaking he slowly retreated, for the plank was being placed in position, and the other natives were showing symptoms of an intention to fly.
Just then a shout was heard landwards. Turning round they saw a dog-sledge flying over the ice towards them, with Oolichuk flourishing the long-lashed whip, and the huge form of their leader beside him.
In a few seconds they dashed up, and Chingatok sprang upon the ice. Without a moment's hesitation he strode towards the plank and crossed it. Walking up to Anders he pulled his own nose. The interpreter was not slow to return the salutation, as he looked up at the giant with surprise, not unmingled with awe. In addition, he grasped his huge hand, squeezed, and shook it.
Chingatok smiled blandly, and returned the squeeze so as to cause the interpreter to wince. Then, perceiving at once that he had got possession of a key to the affections of the strangers, he offered to shake hands with Leonard and his brother, stooping with regal urbanity to them as he did so. By this time the Captain and first mate, with Benjy and several of the crew, were approaching. Instead of exhibiting fear, Chingatok advanced to meet them, and shook hands all round. He gazed at Captain Vane with a look of admiration which was not at first quite accountable, until he laid his hand gently on the Captain's magnificent beard, and stroked it.
The Captain laughed, and again grasped the hand of the Eskimo. They both squeezed, but neither could make the other wince, for Captain Vane was remarkably powerful, though comparatively short of limb.
"Well, you are a good fellow in every way," exclaimed the Captain.
"Heigh, yah!" returned Chingatok, who no doubt meant to be complimentary, though we confess our inability to translate. It was obvious that two sympathetic souls had met.
"Come across," shouted Chingatok, turning abruptly to his companions, who had been gazing at his proceedings in open-mouthed wonder.
The whole tribe at once obeyed the order, and in a few minutes they were in the seventh heaven of delight and good-will, receiving gifts and handshakings, each pulling his own nose frequently by way of expressing satisfaction or friendship, and otherwise exchanging compliments with the no less amiable and gratified crew of the steam yacht Whitebear.
Note. The oomiak is the open boat of skin used by Eskimo women, and is capable of holding several persons. The kayak, or man's canoe, holds only one.
SHOWS HOW THE ESKIMOS WERE ENTERTAINED BY THE WHITE MEN.
The Whitebear steam yacht, owned and commanded by Captain Jacob Vane, had sailed from England, and was bound for the North Pole.
"I'll find it—I'm bound to find it," was the Captain's usual mode of expressing himself to his intimates on the subject, "if there's a North Pole in the world at all, and my nephews Leo and Alf will help me. Leo's a doctor, almost, and Alf's a scientific Jack-of-all-trades, so we can't fail. I'll take my boy Benjy for the benefit of his health, and see if we don't bring home a chip o' the Pole big enough to set up beside Cleopatra's Needle on the Thames embankment."
There was tremendous energy in Captain Vane, and indomitable resolution; but energy and resolution cannot achieve all things. There are other factors in the life of man which help to mould his destiny.
Short and sad and terrible—ay, we might even say tremendous—was the Whitebear's wild career.
Up to the time of her meeting with the Eskimos, all had gone well. Fair weather and favouring winds had blown her across the Atlantic. Sunshine and success had received her, as it were, in the Arctic regions. The sea was unusually free of ice. Upernavik, the last of the Greenland settlements touched at, was reached early in the season, and the native interpreter Anders secured. The dreaded "middle passage," near the head of Baffin's Bay, was made in the remarkably short space of fifty hours, and, passing Cape York into the North Water, they entered Smith's Sound without having received more than a passing bump—an Arctic kiss as it were—from the Polar ice.
In Smith's Sound fortune still favoured them. These resolute intending discoverers of the North Pole passed in succession the various "farthests" of previous explorers, and the stout brothers Vandervell, with their cousin Benjy Vane, gazed eagerly over the bulwarks at the swiftly-passing headlands, while the Captain pointed out the places of interest, and kept up a running commentary on the brave deeds and high aspirations of such well-known men as Frobisher, Davis, Hudson, Ross, Parry, Franklin, Kane, McClure, Rae, McClintock, Hayes, Hall, Nares, Markham, and all the other heroes of Arctic story.
It was an era in the career of those three youths that stood out bright and fresh—never to be forgotten—this first burst of the realities of the Arctic world on minds which had been previously well informed by books. The climax was reached on the day when the Eskimos of the far north were met with.
But from that time a change took place in their experience. Fortune seemed to frown from that memorable day. We say "seemed," because knitted brows do not always or necessarily indicate what is meant by a frown.
After the first fears of the Eskimos had been allayed, a party of them were invited to go on board the ship. They accepted the invitation and went, headed by Chingatok.
That noble savage required no persuasion. From the first he had shown himself to be utterly devoid of fear. He felt that the grand craving of his nature—a thirst for knowledge—was about to be gratified, and that would have encouraged him to risk anything, even if he had been much less of a hero than he was.
But if fear had no influence over our giant, the same cannot be said of his companions. Oolichuk, indeed, was almost as bold, though he exhibited a considerable amount of caution in his looks and movements; but Eemerk, and one or two of his friends, betrayed their craven spirits in frequent startled looks and changing colour. Ivitchuk was a strange compound of nervousness and courage, while Akeetolik appeared to have lost the power of expressing every feeling but one—that of blank amazement. Indeed, surprise at what they saw on board the steam yacht was the predominant feeling amongst these children of nature. Their eyebrows seemed to have gone up and fixed themselves in the middle of their foreheads, and their eyes and mouths to have opened wide permanently. None of the women accepted the invitation to go aboard except Tekkona, and Oblooria followed her, not because she was courageous, but because she seemed to cling to the stronger nature as a protection from undefined and mysterious dangers.
"Tell them," said Captain Vane to Anders, the Eskimo interpreter, "that these are the machines that drive the ship along when there is no wind."
He pointed down the hatchway, where the complication of rods and cranks glistened in the hold.
"Huk!" exclaimed the Eskimos. They sometimes exclaimed Hi! ho! hoy! and hah! as things were pointed out to them, but did not venture on language more intelligible at first.
"Let 'em hear the steam-whistle," suggested the mate.
Before the Captain could countermand the order, Benjy had touched the handle and let off a short, sharp skirl. The effect on the natives was powerful.
They leaped, with a simultaneous yell, at least a foot off the deck, with the exception of Chingatok, though even he was visibly startled, while Oblooria seized Tekkona round the waist, and buried her face in her friend's jacket.
A brief explanation soon restored them to equanimity, and they were about to pass on to some other object of interest, when both the steam-whistle and the escape-valve were suddenly opened to their full extent, and there issued from the engine a hissing yell so prolonged and deafening that even the Captain's angry shout was not heard.
A yard at least was the leap into the air made by the weakest of the Eskimos—except our giant, who seemed, however, to shrink into himself, while he grasped his knife and looked cautiously round, as if to guard himself from any foe that might appear. Eemerk fairly turned and fled to the stern of the yacht, over which he would certainly have plunged had he not been forcibly restrained by two stout seamen. The others, trembling violently, stood still, because they knew not what to do, and poor Oblooria fell flat on the deck, catching Tekkona by the tail, and pulling her down beside her.
"You scoundrel!" exclaimed the Captain, when the din ceased, "I—I—go down, sir, to—"
"Oh! father, don't be hard on me," pleaded Benjy, with a gleefully horrified look, "I really could not resist it. The—the temptation was too strong!"
"The temptation to give you a rope's-ending is almost too strong for me, Benjamin," returned the Captain sternly, but there was a twinkle in his eye notwithstanding, as he turned to explain to Chingatok that his son had, by way of jest, allowed part of the mighty Power imprisoned in the machinery to escape.
The Eskimo received the explanation with dignified gravity, and a faint smile played on his lips as he glanced approvingly at Benjy, for he loved a jest, and was keenly alive to a touch of humour.
"What power is imprisoned in the machinery?" asked our Eskimo through the interpreter.
"What power?" repeated the Captain with a puzzled look, "why, it's boiling water—steam." Here he tried to give a clear account of the nature and power and application of steam, but, not being gifted with capacity for lucid explanation, and the mind of Anders being unaccustomed to such matters, the result was that the brain of Chingatok was filled with ideas that were fitted rather to amaze than to instruct him.
After making the tour of the vessel, the party again passed the engine hatch. Chingatok touched the interpreter quietly, and said in a low, grave tone, "Tell Blackbeard," (thus he styled the Captain), "to let the Power yell again!"
Anders glanced up in the giant's grave countenance with a look of amused surprise. He understood him, and whispered to the Captain, who smiled intelligently, and, turning to his son, said—
"Do it again, Benjy. Give it 'em strong."
Never before did that lad obey his father with such joyous alacrity. In another instant the whistle shrieked, and the escape-valve hissed ten times more furiously than before. Up went the Eskimo—three feet or more—as if in convulsions, and away went Eemerk to the stern, over which he dived, swam to the floe, leaped on his sledge, cracked his whip, and made for home on the wings of terror. Doubtless an evil conscience helped his cowardice.
Meanwhile Chingatok laughed, despite his struggles to be grave. This revealed the trick to some of his quick-witted and humour-loving companions, who at once burst into loud laughter. Even Oblooria dismissed her fears and smiled. In this restored condition they were taken down to the cabin and fed sumptuously.
That night, as Chingatok sat beside his mother, busy with a seal's rib, he gradually revealed to her the wonders he had seen.
"The white men are very wise, mother."
"So you have said four times, my son."
"But you cannot understand it."
"But my son can make me understand," said Toolooha, helping the amiable giant to a second rib.
Chingatok gazed at his little mother with a look of solemnity that evidently perplexed her. She became restless under it, and wiped her forehead uneasily with the flap at the end of her tail. The youth seemed about to speak, but he only sighed and addressed himself to the second rib, over which he continued to gaze while he masticated.
"My thoughts are big, mother," he said, laying down the bare bone.
"That may well be, for so is your head, my son," she replied, gently.
"I know not how to begin, mother."
"Another rib may open your lips, perhaps," suggested the old woman, softly.
"True; give me one," said Chingatok.
The third rib seemed to have the desired effect, for, while busy with it, he began to give his parent a graphic account of the yacht and its crew, and it was really interesting to note how correctly he described all that he understood of what he had seen. But some of the things he had partly failed to comprehend, and about these he was vague.
"And they have a—a Power, mother, shut up in a hard thing, so that it can't get out unless they let it, and it drives the big canoe through the water. It is very strong—terrible!"
"Is it a devil?" asked Toolooha.
"No, it is not alive. It is dead. It is that," he pointed with emphasis to a pot hanging over the lamp out of which a little steam was issuing, and looked at his mother with awful solemnity. She returned the look with something of incredulity.
"Yes, mother, the Power is not a beast. It lives not, yet it drives the white man's canoe, which is as big as a little iceberg, and it whistles; it shrieks; it yells!"
A slightly sorrowful look rested for a moment on Toolooha's benign countenance. It was evident that she suspected her son either of derangement, or having forsaken the paths of truth. But it passed like a summer cloud.
"Tell me more," she said, laying her hand affectionately on the huge arm of Chingatok, who had fallen into a contemplative mood, and, with hands clasped over one knee, sat gazing upwards.
Before he could reply the heart of Toolooha was made to bound by a shriek more terrible than she had ever before heard or imagined.
Chingatok caught her by the wrist, held up a finger as if to impose silence, smiled brightly, and listened.
Again the shriek was repeated with prolonged power.
"Tell me, my son," gasped Toolooha, "is Oblooria—are the people safe? Why came you to me alone?"
"The little sister and the people are safe. I came alone to prevent your being taken by surprise. Did I not say that it could shriek and yell? This is the white man's big canoe."
Dropping the old woman's hand as he spoke, Chingatok darted into the open air with the agility of a Polar bear, and Toolooha followed with the speed of an Arctic hare.
A CATASTROPHE AND A BOLD DECISION.
Two days after her arrival at the temporary residence of the northern Eskimos, the steam yacht Whitebear, while close to the shore, was beset by ice, so that she could neither advance nor retreat. Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, the sea was covered with hummocks and bergs and fields of ice, so closely packed that there was not a piece of open water to be seen, with the exception of one small basin a few yards ahead of the lead or lane of water in which the vessel had been imprisoned.
"No chance of escaping from this, I fear, for a long time," said Alf Vandervell to his brother, as they stood near the wheel, looking at the desolate prospect.
"It seems quite hopeless," said Leo, with, however, a look of confidence that ill accorded with his words.
"I do believe we are frozen in for the winter," said Benjy Vane, coming up at the moment.
"There speaks ignorance," said the Captain, whose head appeared at the cabin hatchway. "If any of you had been in these regions before, you would have learned that nothing is so uncertain as the action of pack ice. At one time you may be hard and fast, so that you couldn't move an inch. A few hours after, the set of the currents may loosen the pack, and open up lanes of water through which you may easily make your escape. Sometimes it opens up so as to leave almost a clear sea in a few hours."
"But it is pretty tight packed just now, father, and looks wintry-like, doesn't it?" said Benjy in a desponding tone.
"Looks! boy, ay, but things are not what they seem hereaway. You saw four mock-suns round the real one yesterday, didn't you? and the day before you saw icebergs floating in the air, eh?"
"True, father, but these appearances were deceptive, whereas this ice, which looks so tightly packed, is a reality."
"That is so, lad, but it is not set fast for the winter, though it looks like it. Well, doctor," added the Captain, turning towards a tall cadaverous man who came on deck just then with the air and tread of an invalid, "how goes it with you? Better, I hope?"
He asked this with kindly interest as he laid his strong hand on the sick man's shoulder; but the doctor shook his head and smiled sadly.
"It is a great misfortune to an expedition, Captain, when the doctor himself falls sick," he said, sitting down on the skylight with a sigh.
"Come, come, cheer up, doctor," returned the Captain, heartily, "don't be cast down; we'll all turn doctors for the occasion, and nurse you well in spite of yourself."
"I'll keep up all heart, Captain, you may depend on't, as long as two of my bones will stick together, but—well, to change the subject; what are you going to do now?"
"Just all that can be done in the circumstances," replied the Captain. "You see, we cannot advance over ice either with sail or steam, but there's a basin just ahead which seems a little more secure than that in which we lie. I'll try to get into it. There is nothing but a neck of ice between us and it, which I think I could cut by charging in under full steam, and there seems a faint gleam of something far ahead, which encourages me. Tell the steward to fetch my glasses, Benjy."
"Butterface!" shouted the boy.
"Fetch the Captain's glasses, please."
A pair of large binoculars were brought up by a huge negro, whose name was pre-eminently unsuggestive of his appearance.
After a long steady gaze at the horizon, the Captain shut up the glass with an air of determination, and ordered the engineer to get up full steam, and the crew to be ready with the ice-poles.
There was a large berg at the extremity of the lakelet of open water into which Captain Vane wished to break. It was necessary to keep well out of the way of that berg. The Captain trusted chiefly to his screw, but got out the ice-poles in case they should be required.
When all the men were stationed, the order was given to go ahead full steam. The gallant little yacht charged the neck of ice like a living creature, hit it fair, cut right through, and scattered the fragments right and left as she sailed majestically into the lakelet beyond. The shock was severe, but no harm was done, everything on board having been made as strong as possible, and of the very best material, for a voyage in ice-laden seas.
An unforeseen event followed, however, which ended in a series of most terrible catastrophes. The neck of ice through which they had broken had acted as a check on the pressure of the great body of the floe, and it was no sooner removed than the heavy mass began to close in with slow but irresistible power, compelling the little vessel to steam close up to the iceberg—so close that some of the upper parts actually overhung the deck.
They were slowly forced into this dangerous position. With breathless anxiety the Captain and crew watched the apparently gentle, but really tremendous grinding of the ice against the vessel's side. Even the youngest on board could realise the danger. No one moved, for nothing whatever could be done.
"Everything depends, under God, on the ice easing off before we are crushed," said the Captain.
As he spoke, the timbers of the yacht seemed to groan under the pressure; then there was a succession of loud cracks, and the vessel was thrust bodily up the sloping sides of the berg. While in this position, with the bow high and dry, a mass of ice was forced against the stern-post, and the screw-propeller was snapped off as if it had been made of glass.
Poor Captain Vane's heart sank as if he had received his death-blow, for he knew that the yacht was now, even in the event of escaping, reduced to an ordinary vessel dependent on its sails. The shock seemed to have shaken the berg itself, for at that moment a crashing sound was heard overhead. The terror-stricken crew looked up, and for one moment a pinnacle like a church spire was seen to flash through the air right above them. It fell with an indescribable roar close alongside, deluging the decks with water. There was a momentary sigh of relief, which, however, was chased away by a succession of falling masses, varying from a pound to a ton in weight, which came down on the deck like cannon-shots, breaking the topmasts, and cutting to pieces much of the rigging. Strange to say, none of the men were seriously injured, though many received bruises more or less severe.
During this brief but thrilling period, the brothers Vandervell and Benjy Vane crouched close together beside the port bulwarks, partially screened from the falling ice by the mizzen shrouds. The Captain stood on the quarter-deck, quite exposed, and apparently unconscious of danger, the picture of despair.
"It can't last long," sighed poor Benjy, looking solemnly up at the vast mass of the bluish-white berg, which hung above them as if ready to fall.
Presently the pressure ceased, then the ice eased off, and in a few minutes the Whitebear slid back into the sea, a pitiable wreck! Now had come the time for action.
"Out poles, my lads, and shove her off the berg!" was the sharp order.
Every one strained as if for life at the ice-poles, and slowly forced the yacht away from the dreaded berg. It mattered not that they were forcing her towards a rocky shore. Any fate would be better than being crushed under a mountain of ice.
But the danger was not yet past. No sooner had they cleared the berg, and escaped from that form of destruction, than the ice began again to close in, and this time the vessel was "nipped" with such severity, that some of her principal timbers gave way. Finally, her back was broken, and the bottom forced in.
"So," exclaimed the Captain, with a look of profound grief, "our voyage in the Whitebear, lads, has come to an end. All that we can do now is to get the boats and provisions, and as much of the cargo as we can, safe on the ice. And sharp's the word, for when the floes ease off, the poor little yacht will certainly go to the bottom."
"No, massa," said the negro steward, stepping on deck at that moment, "we can't go to de bottom, cause we's dare a-ready!"
"What d'ye mean, Butterface?"
"Jus' what me say," replied the steward, with a look of calm resignation. "I's bin b'low, an' seed de rocks stickin' troo de bottom. Der's one de size ob a jolly-boat's bow comed right troo my pantry, an' knock all de crockery to smash, an' de best teapot, he's so flat he wouldn't know hisself in a lookin'-glass."
It turned out to be as Butterface said. The pack had actually thrust the little vessel on a shoal, which extended out from the headland off which the catastrophe occurred, and there was therefore no fear of her sinking.
"Well, we've reason to be thankful for that, at all events," said the Captain, with an attempt to look cheerful; "come, lads, let's to work. Whatever our future course is to be, our first business is to get the boats and cargo out of danger."
With tremendous energy—because action brought relief to their overstrained feelings—the crew of the ill-fated yacht set to work to haul the boats upon the grounded ice. The tide was falling, so that a great part of the most valuable part of the cargo was placed in security before the rising tide interrupted the work.
This was fortunate, for, when the water reached a certain point the ice began to move, and the poor little vessel was so twisted about that they dared not venture on board of her.
That night—if we may call it night in a region where the sun never quite went down—the party encamped on the north-western coast of Greenland, in the lee of a huge cliff just beyond which the tongue of a mighty glacier dipped into the sea. For convenience the party divided into two, with a blazing fire for each, round which the castaways circled, conversing in subdued, sad tones while supper was being prepared.
It was a solemn occasion, and a scene of indescribable grandeur, with the almost eternal glacier of Greenland—the great Humboldt glacier— shedding its bergs into the dark blue sea, the waters of which had by that time been partially cleared to the northward. On the left was the weird pack and its thousand grotesque forms, with the wreck in its iron grasp; on the right the perpendicular cliffs, and the bright sky over all, with the smoke of the campfires rising into it from the foreground.
"Now, my friends," said Captain Vane to the crew when assembled after supper, "I am no longer your commander, for my vessel is a wreck, but as I suppose you still regard me as your leader, I assemble you here for the purpose of considering our position, and deciding on what is best to be done."
Here the Captain said, among other things, it was his opinion that the Whitebear was damaged beyond the possibility of repair, that their only chance of escape lay in the boats, and that the distance between the place on which they stood and Upernavik, although great, was not beyond the reach of resolute men.
"Before going further, or expressing a decided opinion," he added, "I would hear what the officers have to say on this subject. Let the first mate speak."
"It's my opinion," said the mate, "that there's only one thing to be done, namely, to start for home as soon and as fast as we can. We have good boats, plenty of provisions, and are all stout and healthy, excepting our doctor, whom we will take good care of, and expect to do no rough work."
"Thanks, mate," said the doctor with a laugh, "I think that, at all events, I shall keep well enough to physic you if you get ill."
"Are you willing to take charge of the party in the event of my deciding to remain here?" asked the Captain of the mate.
"Certainly, sir," he replied, with a look of slight surprise. "You know I am quite able to do so. The second mate, too, is as able as I am. For that matter, most of the men, I think, would find little difficulty in navigating a boat to Upernavik."
"That is well," returned the Captain, "because I do not intend to return with you."
"Not return!" exclaimed the doctor; "surely you don't mean to winter here."
"No, not here, but further north," replied the Captain, with a smile which most of the party returned, for they thought he was jesting.
Benjy Vane, however, did not think so. A gleeful look of triumph caused his face, as it were, to sparkle, and he said, eagerly—
"We'll winter at the North Pole, father, eh?"
This was greeted with a general laugh.
"But seriously, uncle, what do you mean to do?" asked Leonard Vandervell, who, with his brother, was not unhopeful that the Captain meditated something desperate.
"Benjy is not far off the mark. I intend to winter at the Pole, or as near to it as I can manage to get."
"My dear Captain Vane," said the doctor, with an anxious look, "you cannot really mean what you say. You must be jesting, or mad."
"Well, as to madness," returned the Captain with a peculiar smile, "you ought to know best, for it's a perquisite of your cloth to pronounce people mad or sane, though some of yourselves are as mad as the worst of us; but in regard to jesting, nothing, I assure you, is further from my mind. Listen!"
He rose from the box which had formed his seat, and looked earnestly round on his men. As he stood there, erect, tall, square, powerful, with legs firmly planted, and apart, as if to guard against a lurch of his ship, with his bronzed face flushed, and his dark eye flashing, they all understood that their leader's mind was made up, and that what he had resolved upon, he would certainly attempt to carry out.
"Listen," he repeated; "it was my purpose on leaving England, as you all know, to sail north as far as the ice would let me; to winter where we should stick fast, and organise an over-ice, or overland journey to the Pole with all the appliances of recent scientific discovery, and all the advantages of knowledge acquired by former explorers. It has pleased God to destroy my ship, but my life and my hopes are spared. So are my stores and scientific instruments. I intend, therefore, to carry out my original purpose. I believe that former explorers have erred in some points of their procedure. These errors I shall steer clear of. Former travellers have ignored some facts, and despised some appliances. These facts I will recognise; these appliances I will utilise. With a steam yacht, you, my friends, who have shown so much enthusiasm and courage up to this point, would have been of the utmost service to me. As a party in boats, or on foot, you would only hamper my movements. I mean to prosecute this enterprise almost alone. I shall join myself to the Eskimos."
He paused at this point as if in meditation. Benjy, whose eyes and mouth had been gradually opening to their widest, almost gasped with astonishment as he glanced at his cousins, whose expressive countenances were somewhat similarly affected.
"I have had some long talks," continued the Captain, "with that big Eskimo Chingatok, through our interpreter, and from what he says I believe my chances of success are considerable. I am all the more confirmed in this resolution because of the readiness and ability of my first mate to guide you out of the Arctic regions, and your willingness to trust him. Anders has agreed to go with me as interpreter, and now, all I want is one other man, because—"
"Put me down, father," cried Benjy, in a burst of excitement—"I'm your man."
"Hush, lad," said the Captain with a little smile, "of course I shall take you with me and also your two cousins, but I want one other man to complete the party—but he must be a heartily willing man. Who will volunteer?"
There was silence for a few moments. It was broken by the doctor.
"I for one won't volunteer," he said, "for I'm too much shaken by this troublesome illness to think of such an expedition. If I were well it might be otherwise, but perhaps some of the others will offer."
"You can't expect me to do so," said the mate, "for I've got to guide our party home, as agreed on; besides, under any circumstances, I would not join you, for it is simple madness. You'll forgive me, Captain. I mean no disrespect, but I have sailed many years to these seas, and I know from experience that what you propose is beyond the power of man to accomplish."
"Experience!" repeated the Captain, quickly. "Has your experience extended further north than this point?"
"No, sir, I have not been further north than this—nobody has. It is beyond the utmost limit yet reached, so far as I know."
"Well, then, you cannot speak from experience about what I propose," said the Captain, turning away. "Come, lads, I have no wish to constrain you, I merely give one of you the chance."
Still no one came forward. Every man of the crew of the Whitebear had had more or less personal acquaintance with arctic travel and danger. They would have followed Captain Vane anywhere in the yacht, but evidently they had no taste for what he was about to undertake.
At last one stepped to the front. It was Butterface, the steward. This intensely black negro was a bulky, powerful man, with a modest spirit and a strange disbelief in his own capacities, though, in truth, these were very considerable. He came forward, stooping slightly, and rubbing his hands in a deprecating manner.
"'Scuse me, massa Capting. P'r'aps it bery presumsheeous in dis yer chile for to speak afore his betters, but as no oder man 'pears to want to volunteer, I's willin' to go in an' win. Ob course I ain't a man— on'y a nigger, but I's a willin' nigger, an' kin do a few small tings— cook de grub, wash up de cups an' sarsers, pull a oar, clean yer boots, fight de Eskimos if you wants me to, an' ginrally to scrimmage around a'most anything. Moreover, I eats no more dan a babby—'sep wen I's hungry—an' I'll foller you, massa, troo tick and tin—to de Nort Pole, or de Sout Pole, or de East Pole, or de West Pole—or any oder pole wotsomediver—all de same to Butterface, s'long's you'll let 'im stick by you."
The crew could not help giving the negro a cheer as he finished this loyal speech, and the Captain, although he would have preferred one of the other men, gladly accepted his services.
A few days later the boats were ready and provisioned; adieus were said, hats and handkerchiefs waved, and soon after Captain Vane and his son and two nephews, with Anders and Butterface, were left to fight their battles alone, on the margin of an unexplored, mysterious Polar sea.
LEFT TO THEIR FATE.
There are times, probably, in all conditions of life, when men feel a species of desolate sadness creeping over their spirits, which they find it hard to shake off or subdue. Such a time arrived to our Arctic adventurers the night after they had parted from the crew of the wrecked Whitebear. Nearly everything around, and much within, them was calculated to foster that feeling.
They were seated on the rocky point on the extremity of which their yacht had been driven. Behind them were the deep ravines, broad valleys, black beetling cliffs, grand mountains, stupendous glaciers, and dreary desolation of Greenland. To right and left, and in front of them, lay the chaotic ice-pack of the Arctic sea, with lanes and pools of water visible here and there like lines and spots of ink. Icebergs innumerable rose against the sky, which at the time was entirely covered with grey and gloomy clouds. Gusts of wind swept over the frozen waste now and then, as if a squall which had recently passed, were sighing at the thought of leaving anything undestroyed behind it. When we add to this, that the wanderers were thinking of the comrades who had just left them—the last link, as it were, with the civilised world from which they were self-exiled, of the unknown dangers and difficulties that lay before them, and of the all but forlorn hope they had undertaken, there need be little wonder that for some time they all looked rather grave, and were disposed to silence.
But life is made up of opposites, light and shade, hard and soft, hot and cold, sweet and sour, for the purpose, no doubt, of placing man between two moral battledores so as to drive the weak and erring shuttlecock of his will right and left, and thus keep it in the middle course of rectitude. No sooner had our adventurers sunk to the profoundest depths of gloom, than the battledore of brighter influences began to play upon them. It did not, however, achieve the end at once.
"I'm in the lowest, bluest, dreariest, grumpiest, and most utterly miserable state of mind I ever was in in all my life," said poor little Benjy Vane, thrusting his hands into his pockets, sitting down on a rock, and gazing round on the waste wilderness, which had only just ceased howling, the very personification of despair.
"So's I, massa," said Butterface, looking up from a compound of wet coal and driftwood which he had been vainly trying to coax into a flame for cooking purposes; "I's most 'orribly miserable!"
There was a beaming grin on the negro's visage that gave the lie direct to his words.
"That's always the way with you, Benjy," said the Captain, "either bubblin' over with jollity an' mischief, or down in the deepest blues."
"Blues! father," cried the boy, "don't talk of blues—it's the blacks I'm in, the very blackest of blacks."
"Ha! jus' like me," muttered Butterface, sticking out his thick lips at the unwilling fire, and giving a blow that any grampus might have envied.
The result was that a column of almost solid smoke, which had been for some time rising thicker and thicker from the coals, burst into a bright flame. This was the first of the sweet influences before referred to.
"Mind your wool, Flatnose," cried Benjy, as the negro drew quickly back.
It may be remarked here that the mysterious bond of sympathy which united the spirits of Benjy Vane and the black steward found expression in kindly respect on the part of the man, and in various eccentric courses on the part of the boy—among others, in a habit of patting him on the back, and giving him a choice selection of impromptu names, such as Black-mug, Yellow-eyes, Square-jaws, and the like.
"What have you got in the kettle?" asked Leo Vandervell, who came up with some dry driftwood at the moment.
"Bubble-um-squeak," replied the cook.
"What sort o' squeak is that?" asked Leo, as he bent his tall strong frame over the fire to investigate the contents of the kettle.
"What am it, massa? Why, it am a bit o' salt pork, an' a bit o' dat bear you shooted troo de nose yes'rday, an' a junk o' walrus, an' two puffins, an' some injin corn, a leetil pepper, an' a leetil salt."
"Good, that sounds well," said Leo. "I'll go fetch you some more driftwood, for it'll take a deal of boiling, that will, to make it eatable."
The driftwood referred to was merely some pieces of the yacht which had been cast ashore by the hurly-burly of ice and water that had occurred during the last tide. No other species of driftwood was to be found on that coast, for the neighbouring region was utterly destitute of trees.
"Where has Alf gone to?" asked the Captain, as Leo was moving away.
"Oh, he's looking for plants and shells, as usual," answered Leo, with a smile. "You know his heart is set upon these things."
"He'll have to set his heart on helping wi' the cargo after supper," said the Captain, drawing a small notebook and pencil from his pocket.
A few more of the sweet and reviving influences of life now began to circle round the wanderers. Among them was the savoury odour that arose from the pot of bubble-um-squeak, also the improved appearance of the sky.
It was night, almost midnight, nevertheless the sun was blazing in the heavens, and as the storm-clouds had rolled away like a dark curtain, his cheering rays were by that time gilding the icebergs, and rendering the land-cliffs ruddily. The travellers had enjoyed perpetual daylight for several weeks already, and at that high latitude they could count on many more to come. By the time supper was ready, the depressing influences were gone, and the spirits of all had recovered their wonted tone. Indeed it was not to the discredit of the party that they were so much cast down on that occasion, for the parting, perhaps for ever, from the friends with whom they had hitherto voyaged, had much more to do with their sadness than surrounding circumstances or future trials.
"What plan do you intend to follow out, uncle?" asked Alphonse Vandervell, as they sat at supper that night round the kettle.
"That depends on many things, lad," replied the Captain, laying down his spoon, and leaning his back against a convenient rock. "If the ice moves off, I shall adopt one course; if it holds fast I shall try another. Then, if you insist on gathering and carrying along with you such pocket-loads of specimens, plants, rocks, etcetera, as you've brought in this evening, I'll have to build a sort of Noah's ark, or omnibus on sledge-runners, to carry them."
"And suppose I don't insist on carrying these things, what then?"
"Well," replied the Captain, "in that case I would—well, let me see—a little more of the bubble, Benjy."
"Wouldn't you rather some of the squeak?" asked the boy.
"Both, lad, both—some of everything. Well, as I was saying—and you've a right to know what's running in my head, seeing that you have to help me carry out the plans—I'll give you a rough notion of 'em."
The Captain became more serious as he explained his plans. "The Eskimos, you know," he continued, "have gone by what I may call the shore ice, two days' journey in advance of this spot, taking our dogs along with them. It was my intention to have proceeded to the same point in our yacht, and there, if the sea was open, to have taken on board that magnificent Eskimo giant, Chingatok, with his family, and steered away due north. In the event of the pack being impassable, I had intended to have laid the yacht up in some safe harbour; hunted and fished until we had a stock of dried and salted provisions, enough to last us two years, and then to have started northward in sledges, under the guidance of Chingatok, with a few picked men, leaving the rest and the yacht in charge of the mate. The wreck of the Whitebear has, however, forced me to modify these plans. I shall now secure as much of our cargo as we have been able to save, and leave it here en cache—"
"What sort of cash is that, father?" asked Benjy.
"You are the best linguist among us, Leo, tell him," said the Captain, turning to his nephew.
"'En cache' is French for 'in hiding,'" returned Leo, with a laugh.
"Why do you speak French to Englishmen, father?" said Benjy in a pathetic tone, but with a pert look.
"'Cause the expression is a common one on this side the Atlantic, lad, and you ought to know it. Now, don't interrupt me again. Well, having placed the cargo in security," ("En cache," muttered Benjy with a glance at Butterface.) "I shall rig up the sledges brought from England, load them with what we require, and follow up the Eskimos. You're sure, Anders, that you understood Chingatok's description of the place?"
The interpreter declared that he was quite sure.
"After that," resumed the Captain, "I'll act according to the information the said Eskimos can give me. D'ye know, I have a strong suspicion that our Arctic giant Chingatok is a philosopher, if I may judge from one or two questions he put and observations he made when we first met. He says he has come from a fine country which lies far—very far—to the north of this; so far that I feel quite interested and hopeful about it. I expect to have more talk with him soon on the subject. A little more o' the bubble, lad; really, Butterface, your powers in the way of cookery are wonderful."
"Chingatok seems to me quite a remarkable fellow for an Eskimo," observed Leo, scraping the bottom of the kettle with his spoon, and looking inquiringly into it. "I, too, had some talk with him—through Anders—when we first met, and from what he said I can't help thinking that he has come from the remote north solely on a voyage of discovery into what must be to him the unknown regions of the south. Evidently he has an inquiring mind."
"Much like yourself, Leo, to judge from the way you peer into that kettle," said Benjy; "please don't scrape the bottom out of it. There's not much tin to mend it with, you know, in these regions."
"Brass will do quite as well," retorted Leo, "and there can be no lack of that while you are here."
"Come now, Benjy," said Alf, "that insolent remark should put you on your mettle."
"So it does, but I won't open my lips, because I feel that I should speak ironically if I were to reply," returned the boy, gazing dreamily into the quiet countenance of the steward. "What are you thinking of, you lump of charcoal?"
"Me, massa? me tink dere 'pears to be room for more wittles inside ob me; but as all de grub's eated up, p'r'aps it would be as well to be goin' an' tacklin' suffin' else now."
"You're right, Butterface," cried the Captain, rousing himself from a reverie. "What say you, comrades? Shall we turn in an' have a nap? It's past midnight."
"I'm not inclined for sleep," said Alf, looking up from some of the botanical specimens he had collected.
"No more am I," said Leo, lifting up his arms and stretching his stalwart frame, which, notwithstanding his youth, had already developed to almost the full proportions of a powerful man.
"I vote that we sit up all night," said Benjy, "the sun does it, and why shouldn't we?"
"Well, I've no objection," rejoined the Captain, "but we must work if we don't sleep—so, come along."
Setting the example, Captain Vane began to shoulder the bags and boxes which lay scattered around with the energy of an enthusiastic railway porter. The other members of the party were not a whit behind him in diligence and energy. Even Benjy, delicate-looking though he was, did the work of an average man, besides enlivening the proceedings with snatches of song and a flow of small talk of a humorous and slightly insolent nature.
FUTURE PLANS DISCUSSED AND DECIDED.
Away to the northward of the spot where the Whitebear had been wrecked there stretched a point of land far out into the Arctic Ocean. It was about thirty miles distant, and loomed hugely bluff and grand against the brilliant sky, as if it were the forefront of the northern world. No civilised eyes had ever beheld that land before. Captain Vane knew that, because it lay in latitude 83 north, which was a little beyond the furthest point yet reached by Arctic navigators. He therefore named it Cape Newhope. Benjy thought that it should have been named Butterface-beak, because the steward had been the first to observe it, but his father thought otherwise.
About three miles to the northward of this point of land the Eskimos were encamped. According to arrangement with the white men they had gone there, as we have said, in charge of the dogs brought by Captain Vane from Upernavik, as these animals, it was thought, stood much in need of exercise.
Here the natives had found and taken possession of a number of deserted Eskimo huts.
These rude buildings were the abodes to which the good people migrated when summer heat became so great as to render their snow-huts sloppily disagreeable.
In one of the huts sat Chingatok, his arms resting on his knees, his huge hands clasped, and his intelligent eyes fixed dreamily on the lamp-flame, over which his culinary mother was bending in busy sincerity. There were many points of character in which this remarkable mother and son resembled each other. Both were earnest—intensely so— and each was enthusiastically eager about small matters as well as great. In short, they both possessed great though uncultivated minds.
The hut they occupied was in some respects as remarkable as themselves. It measured about six feet in height and ten in diameter. The walls were made of flattish stones, moss, and the bones of seals, whales, narwhals, and other Arctic creatures. The stones were laid so that each overlapped the one below it, a very little inwards, and thus the walls approached each other gradually as they rose from the foundation; the top being finally closed by slabs of slate-stone. Similar stones covered the floor—one half of which floor was raised a foot or so above the other, and this raised half served for a seat by day as well as a couch by night. On it were spread a thick layer of dried moss, and several seal, dog, and bear skins. Smaller elevations in the corners near the entrance served for seats. The door was a curtain of sealskin. Above it was a small window, glazed, so to speak, with strips of semi-transparent dried intestines sewed together.
Toolooha's cooking-lamp was made of soapstone, formed like a clam-shell, and about eight inches in diameter; the fuel was seal-oil, and the wick was of moss. It smoked considerably, but Eskimos are smoke-proof. The pot above it, suspended from the roof, was also made of soapstone. Sealskins hung about the walls drying; oily mittens, socks and boots were suspended about on pegs and racks of rib-bones. Lumps of blubber hung and lay about miscellaneously. Odours, not savoury, were therefore prevalent—but Eskimos are smell-proof.
"Mother," said the giant, raising his eyes from the flame to his parent's smoke-encircled visage, "they are a most wonderful people, these Kablunets. Blackbeard is a great man—a grand man—but I think he is—"
Chingatok paused, shook his head, and touched his forehead with a look of significance worthy of a white man.
"Why think you so, my son?" asked the old woman, sneezing, as a denser cloud than usual went up her nose.
"Because he has come here to search for nothing."
"Nothing, my son?"
"Yes—at least that is what he tried to explain to me. Perhaps the interpreter could not explain. He is not a smart man, that interpreter. He resembles a walrus with his brain scooped out. He spoke much, but I could not understand."
"Could not understand?" repeated Toolooha, with an incredulous look, "let not Chingatok say so. Is there anything that passes the lips of man which he cannot understand?"
"Truly, mother, I once thought there was not," replied the giant, with a modest look, "but I am mistaken. The Kablunets make me stare and feel foolish."
"But it is not possible to search for nothing," urged Toolooha.
"So I said," replied her son, "but Blackbeard only laughed at me."
"Did he?" cried the mother, with a much relieved expression, "then let your mind rest, my son, for Blackbeard must be a fool if he laughed at you."