IT was a bold project of Hatteras to push his way to the North Pole, and gain for his country the honour and glory of its discovery. But he had done all that lay in human power now, and, after having struggled for nine months against currents and tempests, shattering icebergs and breaking through almost insurmountable barriers, amid the cold of an unprecedented winter, after having outdistanced all his predecessors and accomplished half his task, he suddenly saw all his hopes blasted. The treachery, or rather the despondency, of his worn-out crew, and the criminal folly of one or two leading spirits among them had left him and his little band of men in a terrible situation—helpless in an icy desert, two thousand five hundred miles away from their native land, and without even a ship to shelter them.
However, the courage of Hatteras was still undaunted. The three men which were left him were the best on board his brig, and while they remained he might venture to hope.
After the cheerful, manly words of the captain, the Doctor felt the best thing to be done was to look their prospects fairly in the face, and know the exact state of things. Accordingly, leaving his companions, he stole away alone down to the scene of the explosion.
Of the Forward, the brig that had been so carefully built and had become so dear, not a vestige remained. Shapeless blackened fragments, twisted bars of iron, cable ends still smouldering, and here and there in the distance spiral wreaths of smoke, met his eye on all sides. His cabin and all his precious treasures were gone, his books, and instruments, and collections reduced to ashes. As he stood thinking mournfully of his irreparable loss, he was joined by Johnson, who grasped his offered hand in speechless sorrow.
“What’s to become of us?” asked the Doctor.
“Who can tell!” was the old sailor’s reply.
“Anyhow,” said Clawbonny, “do not let us despair! Let us be men!”
“Yes, Mr. Clawbonny, you are right. Now is the time to show our mettle. We are in a bad plight, and how to get out of it, that is the question.”
“Poor old brig!” exclaimed the Doctor. “I had grown so attached to her. I loved her as one loves a house where he has spent a life-time.”
“Ay! it’s strange what a hold those planks and beams get on a fellow’s heart.”
“And the long-boat—is that burnt?” asked the Doctor.
“No, Mr. Clawbonny. Shandon and his gang have carried it off.”
“And the pirogue?”
“Shivered into a thousand pieces? Stop. Do you see those bits of sheet-iron? That is all that remains of it.”
“Then we have nothing but the Halkett-boat?”
“Yes, we have that still, thanks to your idea of taking it with you.”
“That isn’t much,” said the Doctor.
“Oh, those base traitors!” exclaimed Johnson. “Heaven punish them as they deserve!”
“Johnson,” returned the Doctor, gently, “we must not forget how sorely they have been tried. Only the best remain good in the evil day; few can stand trouble. Let us pity our fellow-sufferers, and not curse them.”
For the next few minutes both were silent, and then Johnson asked what had become of the sledge.
“We left it about a mile off,” was the reply.
“In charge of Simpson?”
“No, Simpson is dead, poor fellow!”
“Yes, his strength gave way entirely, and he first sank.”
“Poor Simpson! And yet who knows if he isn’t rather to be envied?”
“But, for the dead man we have left behind, we have brought back a dying one.”
“A dying man?”
“Yes, Captain Altamont.”
And in a few words he informed Johnson of their discovery.
“An American!” said Johnson, as the recital was ended.
“Yes, everything goes to prove that. But I wonder what the Porpoise was, and what brought her in these seas?”
“She rushed on to her ruin like the rest of foolhardy adventurers; but, tell me, did you find the coal?”
The Doctor shook his head sadly.
“No coal! not a vestige! No, we did not even get as far as the place mentioned by Sir Edward Belcher.”
“Then we have no fuel whatever?” said the old sailor.
“And no provisions?”
“And no ship to make our way back to England?”
It required courage indeed to face these gloomy realities, but, after a moment’s silence, Johnson said again—
“Well, at any rate we know exactly how we stand. The first thing to be done now is to make a hut, for we can’t stay long exposed to this temperature.”
“Yes, we’ll soon manage that with Bell’s help,” replied the Doctor. “Then we must go and find the sledge, and bring back the American, and have a consultation with Hatteras.”
“Poor captain,” said Johnson, always forgetting his own troubles, “how he must feel it!”
Clawbonny and Bell found Hatteras standing motionless, his arms folded in his usual fashion. He seemed gazing into space, but his face had recovered its calm, self-possessed expression. His faithful dog stood beside him, like his master, apparently insensible to the biting cold, though the temperature was 32° below zero.
Bell lay on the ice in an almost inanimate condition. Johnson had to take vigorous measures to rouse him, but at last, by dint of shaking and rubbing him with snow, he succeeded.
“Come, Bell,” he cried, “don’t give way like this. Exert yourself, my man; we must have a talk about our situation, and we need a place to put our heads in. Come and help me, Bell. You haven’t forgotten how to make a snow hut, have you? There is an iceberg all ready to hand; we’ve only got to hollow it out. Let’s set to work; we shall find that is the best remedy for us.”
Bell tried to shake off his torpor and help his comrade, while Mr. Clawbonny undertook to go and fetch the sledge and the dogs.
“Will you go with him, captain?” asked Johnson.
“No, my friend,” said Hatteras, in a gentle tone, “if the Doctor will kindly undertake the task. Before the day ends I must come to some resolution, and I need to be alone to think. Go. Do meantime whatever you think best. I will deal with the future.”
Johnson went back to the Doctor, and said—
“It’s very strange, but the captain seems quite to have got over his anger. I never heard him speak so gently before.”
“So much the better,” said Clawbonny. “Believe me, Johnson, that man can save us yet.”
And drawing his hood as closely round his head as possible, the Doctor seized his iron-tipped staff, and set out without further delay.
Johnson and Bell commenced operations immediately. They had simply to dig a hole in the heart of a great block of ice; but it was not easy work, owing to the extreme hardness of the material. However, this very hardness guaranteed the solidity of the dwelling, and the further their labours advanced the more they became sheltered.
Hatteras alternately paced up and down, and stood motionless, evidently shrinking from any approach to the scene of explosion.
In about an hour the Doctor returned, bringing with him Altamont lying on the sledge, wrapped up in the folds of the tent. The poor dogs were so exhausted from starvation that they could scarcely draw it along, and they had begun to gnaw their harness. It was, indeed, high time for feasts and men to take food and rest.
While the hut was being still further dug out, the Doctor went foraging about, and had the good fortune to find a little stove, almost undamaged by the explosion. He soon restored it to working trim, and, by the time the hut was completed, had filled it with wood and got it lighted. Before long it was roaring, and diffusing a genial warmth on all sides. The American was brought in and laid on blankets, and the four Englishmen seated themselves round the fire to enjoy their scanty meal of biscuit and hot tea, the last remains of the provisions on the sledge. Not a word was spoken by Hatteras, and the others respected his silence.
When the meal was over, the Doctor rose and went out, making a sign to Johnson to follow.
“Come, Johnson,” he said, “we will take an inventory of all we have left. We must know exactly how we are off, and our treasures are scattered in all directions; so we had better begin, and pick them up as fast as possible, for the snow may fall at any moment, and then it would be quite useless to look for anything.”
“Don’t let us lose a minute, then,” replied Johnson. “Fire and food—those are our chief wants.”
“Very well, you take one side and I’ll take the other, and we’ll search from the centre to the circumference.”
This task occupied two hours, and all they discovered was a little salt meat, about 50 lbs. of pemmican, three sacks of biscuits, a small stock of chocolate, five or six pints of brandy, and about 2 lbs. of coffee, picked up bean by bean off the ice.
Neither blankets, nor hammocks, nor clothing—all had been consumed in the devouring flame.
This slender store of provisions would hardly last three weeks, and they had wood enough to supply the stove for about the same time.
Now that the inventory was made, the next business was to fetch the sledge. The tired-out dogs were harnessed sorely against their will, and before long returned bringing the few but precious treasures found among the débris of the brig. These were safely deposited in the hut, and then Johnson and Clawbonny, half-frozen with their work, resumed their places beside their companions in misfortune.