ABOUT eight o’clock in the evening, the grey snow clouds cleared away for a little, and the stars shone out brilliantly in the sky.
Hatteras seized the opportunity and went out silently to take the altitude of some of the principal constellations. He wished to ascertain if the ice-field was still drifting.
In half an hour he returned and sat down in a corner of the hut, where he remained without stirring all night, motionless as if asleep, but in reality buried in deepest thought.
The next day the snow fell heavily, and the Doctor congratulated himself on his wise forethought, when he saw the white sheet lying three feet thick over the scene of the explosion, completely obliterating all traces of the Forward.
It was impossible to venture outside in such weather, but the stove drew capitally, and made the hut quite comfortable, or at any rate it seemed so to the weary, worn out adventurers.
The American was in less pain, and was evidently gradually coming back to life. He opened his eyes, but could not yet speak, for his lips were so affected by the scurvy that articulation was impossible, but he could hear and understand all that was said to him. On learning what had passed, and the circumstances of his discovery, he expressed his thanks by gestures, and the Doctor was too wise to let him know how brief his respite from death would prove. In three weeks at most every vestige of food would be gone.
About noon Hatteras roused himself, and going up to his friends, said—
“We must make up our minds what to do, but I must request Johnson to tell me first all the particulars of the mutiny on the brig, and how this final act of baseness came about.”
“What good will that do?” said the Doctor. “The fact is certain, and it is no use thinking over it.”
“I differ from your opinion,” rejoined Hatteras. “Let me hear the whole affair from Johnson, and then I will banish it from my thoughts.”
“Well,” said the boatswain, “this was how it happened. I did all in my power to prevent, but——”
“I am sure of that, Johnson; and what’s more, I have no doubt the ringleaders had been hatching their plans for some time.”
“That’s my belief too,” said the Doctor.
“And so it is mine,” resumed Johnson; “for almost immediately after your departure Shandon, supported by the others, took the command of the ship. I could not resist him, and from that moment everybody did pretty much as they pleased. Shandon made no attempt to restrain them: it was his policy to make them believe that their privations and toils were at an end. Economy was entirely disregarded. A blazing fire was kept up in the stove, and the men were allowed to eat and drink at discretion; not only tea and coffee was at their disposal, but all the spirits on board, and on men who had been so long deprived of ardent liquors, you may guess the result. They went on in this manner from the 7th to the 15th of January.”
“And this was Shandon’s doing?” asked Hatteras.
“Never mention his name to me again! Go on, Johnson.”
“It was about the 24th or 25th of January, that they resolved to abandon the ship. Their plan was to reach the west coast of Baffin’s Bay, and from thence to embark in the boat and follow the track of the whalers, or to get to some of the Greenland settlements on the eastern side. Provisions were abundant, and the sick men were so excited by the hope of return that they were almost well. They began their preparations for departure by making a sledge which they were to draw themselves, as they had no dogs. This was not ready till the 15th of February, and I was always hoping for your arrival, though I half dreaded it too, for you could have done nothing with the men, and they would have massacred you rather than remain on board. I tried my influence on each one separately, remonstrating and reasoning with them, and pointing out the dangers they would encounter, and also the cowardice of leaving you, but it was a mere waste of words; not even the best among them would listen to me. Shandon was impatient to be off, and fixed the 22nd of February for starting. The sledge and the boat were packed as closely as possible with provisions and spirits, and heaps of wood, to obtain which they had hewed the brig down to her water-line. The last day the men ran riot. They completely sacked the ship, and in a drunken paroxysm Pen and two or three others set it on fire. I fought and struggled against them, but they threw me down and assailed me with blows, and then the wretches, headed by Shandon, went off towards the east and were soon out of sight. I found myself alone on the burning ship, and what could I do? The fire-hole was completely blocked up with ice. I had not a single drop of water! For two days the Forward struggled with the flames, and you know the rest.”
A long silence followed the gloomy recital, broken at length by Hatteras, who said—
“Johnson, I thank you; you did all you could to save my ship, but single-handed you could not resist. Again I thank you, and now let the subject be dropped. Let us unite efforts for our common salvation. There are four of us, four companions, four friends, and all our lives are equally precious. Let each give his opinion on the best course for us to pursue.”
“You ask us then, Hatteras,” said the Doctor, “we are all devoted to you, and our words come from our hearts. But will you not state you own views first?”
“That would be little use,” said Hatteras, sadly; “my opinion might appear interested; let me hear all yours first.”
“Captain,” said Johnson, “before pronouncing on such an important matter, I wish to ask you a question.”
“Ask it, then, Johnson.”
“You went out yesterday to ascertain our exact position; well, is the field drifting or stationary?”
“Perfectly stationary. It had not moved since the last reckoning was made. I find we are just where we were before we left, in 80° 15’ lat. and 97° 35’ long.”
“And what distance are we from the nearest sea to the west?”
“About six hundred miles.”
“And that sea is——?”
“Smith’s Sound,” was the reply.
“The same that we could not get through last April?”
“Well, captain, now we know our actual situation, we are in a better position to determine our course of action.”
“Speak your minds, then,” said Hatteras, again burying his head in his hands.
“What do you say, Bell?” asked the Doctor.
“It strikes me the case doesn’t need long thinking over,” said the carpenter. “We must get back at once without losing a single day or even a single hour, either to the south or west, and make our way to the nearest coast, even if we are two months doing it!”
“We have only food for three weeks,” replied Hatteras, without raising his head.
“Very well,” said Johnson, “we must make the journey in three weeks, since it is our last chance. Even if we can only crawl on our knees before we get to our destination, we must be there in twenty-five days.”
“This part of the Arctic Continent is unexplored. We may have to encounter difficulties. Mountains and glaciers may bar our progress,” objected Hatteras.
“I don’t see that’s any sufficient reason for not attempting it. We shall have to endure sufferings, no doubt, and perhaps many. We shall have to limit ourselves to the barest quantities of food, unless our guns should procure us anything.”
“There is only about half a pound of powder left,” said Hatteras.
“Come now, Hatteras, I know the full weight of your objections, and I am not deluding myself with vain hopes. But I think I can read your motive. Have you any practical suggestion to offer?”
“No,” said Hatteras, after a little hesitation.
“You don’t doubt our courage,” continued the Doctor. “We would follow you to the last—you know that. But must we not, meantime, give up all hope of reaching the Pole? Your plans have been defeated by treachery. Natural difficulties you might have overcome, but you have been outmatched by perfidy and human weakness. You have done all that man could do, and you would have succeeded I am certain; but situated as we are now, are you not obliged to relinquish your projects for the present, and is not a return to England even positively necessary before you could continue them?”
“Well, captain?” asked Johnson after waiting a considerable time for Hatteras to reply.
Thus interrogated, he raised his head, and said in a constrained tone—
“You think yourselves quite certain then of reaching the Sound, exhausted though you are, and almost without food?”
“No,” replied the Doctor, “but there is one thing certain, the Sound won’t come to us, we must go to it. We may chance to find some Esquimaux tribes further south.”
“Besides, isn’t there the chance of falling in with some ship that is wintering here?” asked Johnson.
“Even supposing the Sound is blocked up, couldn’t we get across to some Greenland or Danish settlement? At any rate, Hatteras, we can get nothing by remaining here. The route to England is towards the south, not the north.”
“Yes,” said Bell, “Mr. Clawbonny is right. We must start, and start at once. We have been forgetting our country too long already.”
“Is this your advice, Johnson?” asked Hatteras again.
“And yours, Doctor?”
Hatteras remained silent, but his face, in spite of himself, betrayed his inward agitation. The issue of his whole life hung on the decision he had to make, for he felt that to return to England was to lose all! He could not venture on a fourth expedition.
The Doctor finding he did not reply, added—
“I ought also to have said, that there is not a moment to lose. The sledge must be loaded with the provisions at once, and as much wood as possible. I must confess six hundred miles is a long journey, but we can, or rather we must make twenty miles a day, which will bring us to the coast about the 26th of March.”
“But cannot we wait a few days yet?” said Hatteras.
“What are you hoping for?” asked Johnson.
“I don’t know. Who can tell the future? It is necessary, too, that you should get your strength a little recruited. You might sink down on the road with fatigue, without even a snow hut to shelter you.”
“But think of the terrible death that awaits us here,” replied the carpenter.
“My friends,” said Hatteras, in almost supplicating tones; “you are despairing too soon. I should propose that we should seek our deliverance towards the north, but you would refuse to follow me, and yet why should there not be Esquimaux tribes round about the Pole as well as towards the south? The open sea, of the existence of which we are certified, must wash the shores of continents. Nature is logical in all her doings. Consequently vegetation must be found there when the earth is no longer ice-bound. Is there not a promised land awaiting us in the north from which you would flee?”
Hatteras became animated as he spoke, and Doctor Clawbonny’s excitable nature was so wrought upon that his decision began to waver. He was on the point of yielding, when Johnson, with his wiser head and calmer temperament, recalled him to reason and duty by calling out—
“Come, Bell, let us be off to the sledge.”
“All right,” said Bell, and the two had risen to leave the hut, when Hatteras exclaimed—
“Oh, Johnson! You! you! Well, go! I shall stay, I shall stay!”
“Captain!” said Johnson, stopping in spite of himself.
“I shall stay, I tell you. Go! Leave me like the rest! Come, Duke, you and I will stay together.”
The faithful dog barked as if he understood, and settled himself down beside his master. Johnson looked at the Doctor, who seemed at a loss to know what to do, but came to the conclusion at last that the best way, meantime, was to calm Hatteras, even at the sacrifice of a day. He was just about to try the force of his eloquence in this direction, when he felt a light touch on his arm, and turning round saw Altamont who had crawled out of bed and managed to get on his knees. He was trying to speak, but his swollen lips could scarcely make a sound. Hatteras went towards him, and watched his efforts to articulate so attentively that in a few minutes he made out a word that sounded like Porpoise, and stooping over him he asked—
“Is it the Porpoise?”
Altamont made a sign in the affirmative, and Hatteras went on with his queries, now that he had found a clue.
“In these seas?”
The affirmative gesture was repeated.
“Is she in the north?”
“Do you know her position?”
For a minute or so, nothing more was said, and the onlookers waited with palpitating hearts.
Then Hatteras spoke again and said—
“Listen to me. We must know the exact position of your vessel. I will count the degrees aloud, and you; will stop me when I come to the right one.”
The American assented by a motion of the head, and Hatteras began—
“We’ll take the longitude first. 105°, No? 106°, 107°? It is to the west, I suppose?”
“Yes,” replied Altamont.
“Let us go on, then: 109°, 110°, 112°, 114°, 116°, 118°, 120°.”
“Yes,” interrupted the sick man.
“120° of longitude, and how many minutes? I will count.”
Hatteras began at number one, and when he got to fifteen, Altamont made a sign to stop.
“Very good,” said Hatteras; “now for the latitude. Are you listening? 80°, 81°, 82°, 83°.”
Again the sign to stop was made.
“Now for the minutes: 5’, 10’, 15’, 20’, 25’, 30’, 35’.”
Altamont stopped him once more, and smiled feebly.
“You say, then, that the Porpoise is in longitude 120° 15’, and latitude 83° 35’?”
“Yes,” sighed the American, and fell back motionless in the Doctor’s arms, completely overpowered by the effort he had made.
“Friends!” exclaimed Hatteras; “you see I was right. Our salvation lies indeed in the north, always in the north. We shall be saved!”
But the joyous, exulting words had hardly escaped his lips before a sudden thought made his countenance change. The serpent of jealousy had stung him, for this stranger was an American, and he had reached three degrees nearer the Pole than the ill-fated Forward.