IT is a dreary affair to live at the Pole, for there is no going out for many long months, and nothing to break the weary monotony.
The day after the hunting excursion was dark and snowy, and Clawbonny could find no occupation except polishing up the ice walls of the hut as they became damp with the heat inside, and emptying out the snow which drifted into the long passage leading to the inner door. The “Snow-House” stood out well, defying storm and tempest, and the snow only seemed to increase the thickness of the walls.
The storehouses, too, did not give way the least; but though they were only a few yards off, it was found necessary to lay in enough provisions for the day, as very often the weather made it almost impossible to venture that short distance.
The unloading of the Porpoise turned out to have been a wise precaution, for she was slowly but surely being crashed to pieces by the silent, irresistible pressure around her. Still the Doctor was always hoping enough planks might be sufficiently sound to construct a small vessel to convey them back to England, but the right time to build had not come.
The five men were consequently compelled to spend the greater part of the day in complete idleness. Hatteras lolled on his bed absorbed in thought. Altamont smoked or dozed, and the Doctor took care not to disturb either of them, for he was in perpetual fear of a quarrel between them.
At meal times he always led the conversation away from irritating topics and sought, as far as possible, to instruct and interest all parties. Whenever he was not engaged with the preparation of his notes, he gave them dissertations on history, geography, or meteorology, handling his subject in an easy, though philosophical manner, drawing lessons from the most trivial incidents. His inexhaustible memory was never at a loss for fact or illustration when his good humour and geniality made him the life and soul of the little company. He was implicitly trusted by all, even by Hatteras, who cherished a deep affection for him.
Yet no man felt the compulsory confinement more painfully than Clawbonny. He longed ardently for the breaking up of the frost to resume his excursions though he dreaded the rivalry that might ensue between the two captains.
Yet things must come to a crisis soon or late, and meantime he resolved to use his best endeavors to bring both parties to a better mind, but to reconcile an American and an Englishman was no easy task. He and Johnson had many a talk on the subject, for the old sailor’s views quite coincided with his own as to the difficult complications which awaited them in the future.
However, the bad weather continued, and leaving Fort Providence, even for an hour, was out of the question. Day and night they were pent up in these glittering ice-walls, and time hung heavily on their hands, at least on all but the Doctor’s, and he always managed to find some occupation for himself.
“I declare,” said Altamont, one evening; “life like this is not worth having. We might as well be some of those reptiles that sleep all the winter. But I suppose there is no help for it.”
“I am afraid not,” said the Doctor; “unfortunately we are too few in number to get up any amusement.”
“Then you think if there were more of us, we should find more to do?”
“Of course: when whole ships’ crews have wintered here, they have managed to while away the time famously.”
“Well, I must say I should like to know how. It would need a vast amount of ingenuity to extract anything amusing out of our circumstances. I suppose they did not play at charades?”
“No, but they introduced the press and the theatre.”
“What? They had a newspaper?” exclaimed the American.
“They acted a comedy?” said Bell.
“That they did,” said the Doctor. “When Parry wintered at Melville Island, he started both amusements among his men, and they met with great success.”
“Well, I must confess, I should like to have been there,” returned Johnson; “for it must have been rather curious work.”
“Curious and amusing too, my good Johnson. Lieutenant Beechey was the theatre manager, and Captain Sabina chief editor of the newspaper called ‘The Winter Chronicle, or the Gazette of Northern Georgia.’”
“Good titles,” said Altamont.
“The newspaper appeared daily from the 1st of November, 1819, to the 20th of March, 1820. It reported the different excursions, and hunting parties, and accidents, and adventures, and published amusing stories. No doubt the articles were not up to the ‘Spectator’ or the ‘Daily Telegraph,’ but the readers were neither critical nor blasé, and found great pleasure in their perusal.”
“My word!” said Altamont. “I should like to read some of the articles.”
“Would you? Well, you shall judge for yourself.”
“What! can you repeat them from memory?”
“No; but you had Parry’s Voyages on board the Porpoise, and I can read you his own narrative if you like.”
This proposition was so eagerly welcomed that the Doctor fetched the book forthwith, and soon found the passage in question.
“Here is a letter,” he said, “addressed to the editor.”
“‘Your proposition to establish a journal has been received by us with the greatest satisfaction. I am convinced that, under your direction, it will be a great source of amusement, and go a long way to lighten our hundred days of darkness.
“‘The interest I take in the matter myself has led me to study the effect of your announcement on my comrades, and I can testify, to use reporter’s language, that the thing has produced an immense sensation.
“‘The day after your prospectus appeared, there was an unusual and unprecedented demand for ink among us, and our green tablecloth was deluged with snippings and parings of quill-pens, to the injury of one of our servants, who got a piece driven right under his nail. I know for a fact that Sergeant Martin had no less than nine pen-knives to sharpen.
“‘It was quite a novel sight to see all the writing-desks brought out, which had not made their appearance for a couple of months, and judging by the reams of paper visible, more than one visit must have been made to the depths of the hold.
“‘I must not forget to tell you, that I believe attempts will be made to slip into your box sundry articles which are not altogether original, as they have been published already. I can declare that, no later than last night, I saw an author bending over his desk, holding a volume of the “Spectator” open with one hand, and thawing the frozen ink in his pen at the lamp with the other. I need not warn you to be on your guard against such tricks, for it would never do for us to have articles in our “Winter Chronicle” which our great-grandfathers read over their breakfast-tables a century ago.’”
“Well, well,” said Altamont, “there is a good deal of clever humour in that writer. He must have been a sharp fellow.”
“You’re right. Here is an amusing catalogue of Arctic tribulations:—
“‘To go out in the morning for a walk, and the moment you put your foot outside the ship, find yourself immersed in the cook’s water-hole.
“‘To go out hunting, and fall in with a splendid reindeer, take aim, and find your gun has gone off with a flash in the pan, owing to damp powder.
“‘To set out on a march with a good supply of soft new bread in your pocket, and discover, when you want to eat, that it has frozen so hard that you would break your teeth if you attempted to bite it through.
“‘To rush from the table when it is reported that a wolf is in sight, and on coming back to find the cat has eaten your dinner.
“‘To be returning quietly home from a walk, absorbed in profitable meditation, and suddenly find yourself in the embrace of a bear.’
“We might supplement this list ourselves,” said the Doctor, “to almost any amount, for there is a sort of pleasure in enumerating troubles when one has got the better of them.”
“I declare,” said Altamont, “this ‘Winter Journal’ is an amusing affair. I wish we could subscribe to it.”
“Suppose we start one,” said Johnson.
“For us five!” exclaimed Clawbonny; “we might do for editors, but there would not be readers enough.”
“No, nor spectators enough, if we tried to get up a comedy,” added Altamont.
“Tell us some more about Captain Parry’s theatre,” said Johnson; “did they play new pieces?”
“Certainly. At first two volumes on board the ‘Hecla’ were gone through, but as there was a performance once a fortnight, this repertoire was soon exhausted. Then they had to improvise fresh plays; Parry himself composed one which had immense success. It was called ‘The North-West Passage, or the End of the Voyage.’”
“A famous title,” said Altamont; “but I must confess, if I had chosen such a subject, I should have been at a loss for the dénouement.”
“You are right,” said Bell; “who can say what the end will be?”
“What does that matter?” replied Mr. Clawbonny. “Why should we trouble about the last act, while the first ones are going on well. Leave all that to Providence, friends; let us each play our own rôle as perfectly as we can, and since the dénouement belongs to the Great Author of all things, we will trust his skill. He will manage our affairs for us, never fear.”
“Well, we’d better go and dream about it,” said Johnson, “for it’s getting late, and it is time we went to bed,” said Johnson.
“You’re in a great hurry, old fellow,” replied the Doctor.
“Why would you sit up, Mr. Clawbonny? I am so comfortable in my bed, and then I always have such good dreams. I dream invariably of hot countries, so that I might almost say, half my life is spent in the tropics, and half at the North Pole.”
“You’re a happy man, Johnson,” said Altamont, “to be blessed with such a fortunate organization.”
“Indeed I am,” replied Johnson.
“Well, come, after that it would be positive cruelty to keep our good friend pining here,” said the Doctor, “his tropical sun awaits him, so let’s all go to bed.”