THREE hours after this sad dénouement of the adventures of Captain Hatteras, the whole party were back once more in the grotto.
Clawbonny was asked his opinion as to what was best to be done.
“Well, friends,” he said, “we cannot stay longer in this island; the sea is open, and we have enough provisions. We ought to start at once, and get back without the least delay to Fort Providence, where we must winter.”
“That is my opinion, too,” said Altamont. “The wind is favourable, so to-morrow we will get to sea.”
The day passed in profound dejection. The insanity of the captain was a bad omen and when they began to talk over the return voyage, their hearts failed them for fear. They missed the intrepid spirit of their leader.
However, like brave men, they prepared to battle anew with the elements and with themselves, if ever they felt inclined to give way.
Next morning they made all ready to sail, and brought the tent and all its belongings on board.
But before leaving these rocks, never to return, the Doctor carrying out the intentions of Hatteras, had a cairn erected on the very spot where the poor fellow had jumped ashore. It was made of great blocks placed one on the top of the other, so as to be a landmark perfectly visible while the eruptions of the volcano left it undisturbed. On one of the side stones, Bell chiselled the simple inscription—
The duplicate of the document attesting the discovery of the North Pole was enclosed in a tinned iron cylinder, and deposited in the cairn, to remain as a silent witness among those desert rocks.
This done, the four men and the captain, a poor body without a soul, set out on the return voyage, accompanied by the faithful Duke, who had become sad and downcast. A new sail was manufactured out of the tent, and about ten o’clock, the little sloop sailed out before the wind.
She made a quick passage, finding abundance of open water. It was certainly easier to get away from the Pole than to get to it.
But Hatteras knew nothing that was passing around him. He lay full length in the boat, perfectly silent, with lifeless eye and folded arms, and Duke lying at his feet. Clawbonny frequently addressed him, but could elicit no reply.
On the 15th they sighted Altamont Harbour, but as the sea was open all along the coast, they determined to go round to Victoria Bay by water, instead of crossing New America in the sledge.
The voyage was easy and rapid. In a week they accomplished what had taken a fortnight in the sledge, and on the 23rd they cast anchor in Victoria Bay.
As soon as the sloop was made fast, they all hastened to Fort Providence. But what a scene of devastation met their eyes! Doctor’s House, stores, powder-magazine, fortifications, all had melted away, and the provisions had been ransacked by devouring animals.
The navigators had almost come to the end of their supplies, and had been reckoning on replenishing their stores at Fort Providence. The impossibility of wintering there now was evident, and they decided to get to Baffin’s Bay by the shortest route.
“We have no alternative,” said Clawbonny; “Baffin’s Bay is not more than six hundred miles distant. We can sail as long as there is water enough under our sloop, and get to Jones’ Sound, and then on to the Danish settlements.”
“Yes,” said Altamont; “let us collect what food remains, and be off at once.”
After a thorough search, a few cases of pemmican were found scattered here and there, and two barrels of preserved meat, altogether enough for six weeks, and a good supply of powder. It was soon collected and brought on board, and the remainder of the day was employed in caulking the sloop and putting her in good trim.
Next morning they put out once more to sea. The voyage presented no great difficulties, the drift-ice being easily avoided; but still the Doctor thought it advisable, in case of possible delays, to limit the rations to one-half. This was no great hardship, as there was not much work for anyone to do, and all were in perfect health.
Besides, they found a little shooting, and brought down ducks, and geese, and guillemots, or sea turtledoves. Water they were able to supply themselves with in abundance, from the fresh-water icebergs they constantly fell in with as they kept near the coast, not daring to venture out to the open sea in so frail a barque.
At that time of the year, the thermometer was already constantly below freezing point. The frequent rains changed to snow, and the weather became gloomy. Each day the sun dipped lower below the horizon, and on the 30th, for a few minutes, he was out of sight altogether.
However, the little sloop sailed steadily on without stopping an instant. They knew what fatigues and obstacles a land journey involved, if they should be forced to adopt it, and no time was to be lost, for soon the open water would harden to firm ground; already the young ice had begun to form. In these high latitudes there is neither spring nor autumn; winter follows close on the heels of summer.
On the 31st the first stars glimmered overhead, and from that time forwards there was continual fog, which considerably impeded navigation.
The Doctor became very uneasy at these multiplied indications of approaching winter. He knew the difficulties Sir John Ross had to contend with after he left his ship to try and reach Baffin’s Bay, and how, after all, he was compelled to return and pass a fourth winter on board. It was bad enough with shelter and food and fuel, but if any such calamity befell the survivors of the Forward, if they were obliged to stop or return, they were lost.
The Doctor said nothing of his anxieties to his companions, but only urged them to get as far east as possible.
At last, after thirty days’ tolerably quick sailing, and after battling for forty-eight hours against the increasing drift ice, and risking the frail sloop a hundred times, the navigators saw themselves blocked in on all sides. Further progress was impossible, for the sea was frozen in every direction, and the thermometer was only 15° above zero.
Altamont made a reckoning with scrupulous precision, and found they were in 77°15’ latitude, and 85° 2’ longitude.
“This is our exact position then,” said the Doctor. “We are in South Lincoln, just at Cape Eden, and are entering Jones’ Sound. With a little more good luck, we should have found open water right to Baffin’s Bay. But we must not grumble. If my poor Hatteras had found as navigable a sea at first, he would have soon reached the Pole. His men would not have deserted him, and his brain would not have given way under the pressure of terrible trial.”
“I suppose, then,” said Altamont, “our only course is to leave the sloop, and get by sledge to the east coast of Lincoln.”
“Yes; but I think we should go through Jones’ Sound, and get to South Devon instead of crossing Lincoln.”
“Because the nearer we get to Lancaster Sound, the more chance we have of meeting whalers.”
“You are right; but I question whether the ice is firm enough to make it practicable.”
“We’ll try,” replied Clawbonny.
The little vessel was unloaded, and the sledge put together again. All the parts were in good condition, so the next day the dogs were harnessed, and they started off along the coast to reach the ice-field; but Altamont’s opinion proved right. They could not get through Jones’ Sound, and were obliged to follow the coast to Lincoln.
At last, on the 24th, they set foot on North Devon.
“Now,” said Clawbonny, “we have only to cross this, and get to Cape Warender at the entrance to Lancaster Sound.”
But the weather became frightful, and very cold. The snow-storms and tempests returned with winter violence, and the travellers felt too weak to contend with them. Their stock of provisions was almost exhausted, and rations had to be reduced now to a third, that the dogs might have food enough to keep them in working condition.
The nature of the ground added greatly to the fatigue. North Devon is extremely wild and rugged, and the path across the Trauter mountains is through difficult gorges. The whole party—men, and dogs, and sledge alike—were frequently forced to stop, for they could not struggle on against the fury of the elements. More than once despair crept over the brave little band, hardy as they were, and used to Polar sufferings. Though scarcely aware of it themselves, they were completely worn out, physically and mentally.
It was not till the 30th of August that they emerged from these wild mountains into a plain, which seemed to have been upturned and convulsed by volcanic action at some distant period.
Here it was absolutely necessary to take a few days’ rest, for the travellers could not drag one foot after the other, and two of the dogs had died from exhaustion. None of the party felt equal to put up the tent, so they took shelter behind an iceberg.
Provisions were now so reduced, that, notwithstanding their scanty rations, there was only enough left for one week. Starvation stared the poor fellows in the face.
Altamont, who had displayed great unselfishness and devotion to the others, roused his sinking energies, and determined to go out and find food for his comrades.
He took his gun, called Duke, and went off almost unnoticed by the rest.
He had been absent about an hour, and only once during that time had they heard the report of his gun; and now he was coming back empty-handed, but running as if terrified.
“What is the matter?” asked the Doctor.
“Down there, under the snow!” said Altamont, speaking as if scared, and pointing in a particular direction.
“A whole party of men!”
He did not finish the sentence, but a look of unspeakable horror came over his face.
The Doctor and the others were so roused by this incident, that they managed to get up and drag themselves after Altamont towards the place he indicated.
They soon arrived, at a narrow part at the bottom of a ravine, and what a spectacle met their gaze! Dead bodies, already stiff, lay half-buried in a winding-sheet of snow. A leg visible here, an arm there, and yonder shrunken hands and rigid faces, stamped with the expression of rage and despair.
The Doctor stooped down to look at them more closely, but instantly started back pale and agitated, while Duke barked ominously.
“Horrible, horrible!” he said.
“What is it?” asked Johnson.
“Don’t you recognize them?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look and see!”
It was evident this ravine had been but recently the scene of a fearful struggle with cold, and despair, and starvation, for by certain horrible remains it was manifest that the poor wretches had been feeding on human flesh, perhaps while still warm and palpitating; and among them the Doctor recognized Shandon, Pen, and the ill-fated crew of the Forward! Their strength had failed; provisions had come to an end; their boat had been broken, perhaps by an avalanche or engulphed in some abyss, and they could not take advantage of the open sea; or perhaps they had lost their way in wandering over these unknown continents. Moreover, men who set out under the excitement of a revolt were not likely to remain long united. The leader of a rebellion has but a doubtful power, and no doubt Shandon’s authority had been soon cast off.
Be that as it might, it was evident the crew had come through agonies of suffering and despair before this last terrible catastrophe, but the secret of their miseries is buried with them beneath the polar snows.
“Come away! come away!” said the Doctor, dragging his companions from the scene. Horror gave them momentary strength, and they resumed their march without stopping a minute longer.