HATTERAS and Johnson had been getting somewhat uneasy at the prolonged absence of their companions, and were delighted to see them back safe and sound. The hunters were no less glad to find themselves once more in a warm shelter, for the temperature had fallen considerably as night drew on, and the thermometer outside was 73° below zero.
The poor hunters were half frozen, and so worn out that they could hardly drag their limbs along; but the stoves were roaring and crackling cheerily, and the big kitchen fire waiting to cook such game as might be brought in. Clawbonny donned his official apron again, and soon had his seal cutlets dressed and smoking on the table. By nine o’clock the whole party were enjoying a good supper, and Bell couldn’t help exclaiming—
“Well, even at the risk of being taken for an Esquimaux, I must confess eating is the most important business if one has to winter in these regions. A good meal isn’t to be sneezed at.”
They all had their mouths crammed too full to speak, but the Doctor signified his agreement with Bell’s views by an approving nod.
The cutlets were pronounced first-rate, and it seemed as if they were, for they were all eaten, to the very last morsel.
For dessert they had coffee, which the Doctor brewed himself in a French coffee-pot over spirits-of-wine. He never allowed anybody but himself to concoct this precious beverage; for he made a point of serving it boiling hot, always declaring it was not fit to drink unless it burnt his tongue. This evening he took it so scalding that Altamont exclaimed—
“You’ll skin your throat!”
“Not a bit of it,” was the Doctor’s reply.
“Then your palate must be copper-sheathed,” said Johnson.
“Not at all, friends. I advise you to copy my example. Many persons, and I am one, can drink coffee at a temperature of 131°.”
“131°?” said Altamont; “why, that is hotter than the hand could bear!”
“Of course it is, Altamont, for the hand could not bear more than 122°, but the palate and tongue are less sensitive.”
“You surprise me.”
“Well, I will convince you it is fact,” returned Clawbonny, and taking up a thermometer, he plunged it into the steaming coffee. He waited till the mercury rose as high as 131° and then withdrew it, and swallowed the liquid with evident gusto.
Bell tried to follow his example, but burnt his mouth severely.
“You are not used to it,” said the Doctor, coolly.
“Can you tell us, Clawbonny,” asked Altamont, “what is the highest temperature that the human body can bear.”
“Yes, several curious experiments have been made in that respect. I remember reading of some servant girls, in the town of Rochefoucauld, in France, who could stay ten minutes in a baker’s large oven when the temperature was 300°, while potatoes and meat were cooking all round them.”
“What girls!” exclaimed Altamont.
“Well, there is another case, where eight of our own countrymen—Fordyce, Banks, Solander, Blagdin, Home, Nooth, Lord Seaforth, and Captain Phillips—went into one as hot as 200°, where eggs and beef were frizzling.”
“And they were Englishmen!” said Bell, with a touch of national pride.
“Oh, the Americans could have done better than that,” said Altamont.
“They would have roasted,” returned the Doctor, laughing. “At all events they have never tried it, so I shall stand up for my countrymen. There is one more instance I recollect, and really it is so incredible, that it would be impossible to believe it, if it were not attested by unimpeachable evidence. The Dukee of Ragusa and Dr. Jung, a Frenchman and an Austrian, saw a Turk plunge into a bath at 170°.”
“But that is not so astonishing as those servant girls, or our own countrymen,” said Johnson.
“I beg your pardon,” replied Clawbonny; “there is a great difference between plunging into hot air and hot water. Hot air produces perspiration, which protects the skin, but boiling water scalds. The maximum heat of baths is 107°, so that this Turk must have been an extraordinary fellow to endure such temperature.”
“What is the mean temperature, Mr. Clawbonny, of animated beings?” asked Johnson.
“That varies with the species,” replied the Doctor. “Birds have the highest, especially the duck and the hen. The mammalia come next, and human beings. The temperature of Englishmen averages 101°.”
“I am sure Mr. Altamont is going to claim a higher rate for his countrymen,” said Johnson, smiling.
“Well, sure enough, we’ve some precious hot ones among us, but as I never have put a thermometer down their throats to ascertain, I can’t give you statistics.”
“There is no sensible difference,” said the Doctor, “between men of different races when they are placed under the same conditions, whatever their food may be. I may almost say their temperature would be the same at the Equator as the Pole.”
“Then the heat of our bodies is the same here as in England,” replied Altamont.
“Just about it. The other species of mammalia are generally hotter than human beings. The horse, the hare, the elephant, the porpoise, and the tiger are nearly the same; but the cat, the squirrel, the rat, the panther, the sheep, the ox, the dog, the monkey, and the goat, are as high as 103°; and the pig is 104°.”
“Rather humiliating to us,” put in Altamont.
“Then come the amphibia and the fish,” resumed the Doctor, “whose temperature varies with that of the water. The serpent has a temperature of 86°, the frog 70°, and the shark several degrees less. Insects appear to have the temperature of air and water.”
“All this is very well,” interrupted Hatteras, who had hitherto taken no part in the conversation, “and we are obliged to the Doctor for his scientific information; but we are really talking as if we were going to brave the heat of the torrid zone. I think it would be far more seasonable to speak of cold, if the Doctor could tell us what is the lowest temperature on record.”
“I can enlighten you on that too,” replied the Doctor. “There are a great number of memorable winters, which appear to have come at intervals of about forty-one years. In 1364, the Rhone was frozen over as far as Arles; in 1408, the Danube was frozen throughout its entire extent, and the wolves crossed the Cattigut on firm ground; in 1509, the Adriatic and the Mediterranean were frozen at Venice and Marseilles, and the Baltic on the 10th of April; in 1608, all the cattle died in England from the cold; in 1789, the Thames was frozen as far as Gravesend; and the frightful winter of 1813 will long be remembered in France. The earliest and longest ever known in the present century was in 1829. So much for Europe.”
“But here, within the Polar circle, what is the lowest degree?” asked Altamont.
“My word!” said the Doctor. “I think we have experienced the lowest ourselves, for one day the thermometer was 72° below zero, and, if my memory serves me right, the lowest temperature mentioned hitherto by Arctic voyagers has been 61° at Melville Island, 65° at Port Felix, and 70° at Fort Reliance.”
“Yes,” said Hatteras, “it was the unusual severity of the winter that barred our progress, for it came on just at the worst time possible.”
“You were stopped, you say?” asked Altamont, looking fixedly at the captain.
“Yes, in our voyage west,” the Doctor hastened to reply.
“Then the maximum and minimum temperatures,” said Altamont, resuming the conversation, “are about 200° apart. So you see, my friends, we may make ourselves easy.”
“But if the sun were suddenly extinguished,” suggested Johnson, “would not the earth’s temperature be far lower?”
“There is no fear of such a catastrophe; but, even should it happen, the temperature would be scarcely any different.”
“It is; but Fourrier, a learned Frenchman, has proved the fact incontestably. If it were not the case, the difference between day and night would be far greater, as also the degree of cold at the Poles. But now I think, friends, we should be the better of a few hours’ sleep. Who has charge of the stove?”
“It is my turn to-night,” said Bell.
“Well, pray keep up a good fire, for it is a perishing night.”
“Trust me for that,” said Bell. “But do look out, the sky is all in a blaze.”
“Ay! it is a magnificent aurora,” replied the Doctor, going up to the window. “How beautiful! I never tire gazing at it.”
No more he ever did, though his companions had become so used to such displays that they hardly noticed them now. He soon followed the example of the others, however, and lay down on his bed beside the fire, leaving Bell to mount guard.