The Field of Ice

Chapter XX

Footprints in the Snow

Jules Verne

ON the fourth of July there was such an exceedingly dense fog, that it was very difficult to keep the straight course for the north. No misadventure, however, befel the party during the darkness, except the loss of Bell’s snow-shoes. At Bell’s suggestion, which fired the Doctor’s inventive genius, torches were contrived, made of tow steeped in spirits-of-wine and fastened on the end of a stick, and these served somewhat to help them on, though they made but small progress; for, on the sixth, after the fog had cleared off, the Doctor took their bearings, and found that they had only been marching at the rate of eight miles a day.

Determined to make up for lost time, they rose next morning very early and started off, Bell and Altamont as usual going ahead of the rest and acting as scouts. Johnson and the others kept beside the sledge, and were soon nearly two miles behind the guides; but the weather was so dry and clear that all their movements could be distinctly observed.

“What now?” said Clawbonny, as he saw them make a sudden halt, and stoop down as if examining the ground.

“I was just wondering what they are about, myself,” replied old Johnson.

“Perhaps they have come on the tracks of animals,” suggested Hatteras.

“No,” said Clawbonny, “it can’t be that.”

“Why not?”

“Because Duke would bark.”

“Well, it is quite evident they are examining some sort of marks.”

“Let’s get on, then,” said Hatteras; and, urging forward the dogs, they rejoined their companions in about twenty minutes, and shared their surprise at finding unmistakable fresh footprints of human beings in the snow, as plain as if only made the preceding day.

“They are Esquimaux footprints,” said Hatteras.

“Do you think so?” asked Altamont.

“There is no doubt of it.”

“But what do you make of this, then?” returned Altamont, pointing to another footmark repeated in several places. “Do you believe for a minute that was made by an Esquimaux?”

It was incontestably the print of a European boot—nails, sole, and heel clearly stamped in the snow. There was no room for doubt, and Hatteras exclaimed in amazement—

“Europeans here!”

“Evidently,” said Johnson.

“And yet it is so improbable that we must take a second look before pronouncing an opinion,” said Clawbonny.

But the longer he looked, the more apparent became the fact. Hatteras was chagrined beyond measure. A European here, so near the Pole!

The footprints extended for about a quarter of a mile, and then diverged to the west. Should the travellers follow them further?

“No,” said Hatteras, “let us go on.”

He was interrupted by an exclamation from the Doctor, who had just picked up an object that gave still more convincing proof of European origin. It was part of a pocket spy-glass!

“Well, if we still had any doubts about the footmarks, this settles the case at once, at any rate,” said Clawbonny.

Forward!” exclaimed Hatteras so energetically, that instinctively each one obeyed, and the march was resumed forthwith.

The day wore away, but no further sign of the presence of suspected rivals was discovered, and they prepared to encamp for the night.

The tent was pitched in a ravine for shelter, as the sky was dark and threatening, and a violent north wind was blowing.

“I’m afraid we’ll have a bad night,” said Johnson.

“A pretty noisy one, I expect,” replied the Doctor, “but not cold. We had better take every precaution, and fasten down our tent with good big stones.”

“You are right, Mr. Clawbonny. If the hurricane swept away our tent, I don’t know where we should find it again.”

The tent held fast, but sleep was impossible, for the tempest was let loose and raged with tremendous violence.

“It seems to me,” said the Doctor, during a brief lull in the deafening roar, “as if I could hear the sound of collisions between icebergs and ice-fields. If we were near the sea, I could really believe there was a general break-up in the ice.”

“I can’t explain the noises any other way,” said Johnson.

“Can we have reached the coast, I wonder?” asked Hatteras.

“It is not impossible,” replied Clawbonny. “Listen! Do you hear that crash? That is certainly the sound of icebergs falling. We cannot be very far from the ocean.”

“Well, if it turn out to be so, I shall push right on over the ice-fields.”

“Oh, they’ll be all broken up after such a storm as this. We shall see what to-morrow, brings; but all I can say is, if any poor fellows are wandering about in a night like this, I pity them.”

The storm lasted for ten hours, and the weary travellers anxiously watched for the morning. About daybreak its fury seemed to have spent itself, and Hatteras, accompanied by Bell and Altamont, ventured to leave the tent. They climbed a hill about three hundred feet high, which commanded a wide view. But what a metamorphosed region met their gaze! All the ice had completely vanished, the storm had chased away the winter, and stripped the soil everywhere of its snow covering.

But Hatteras scarcely bestowed a glance on surrounding objects; his eager gaze was bent on the northern horizon, which appeared shrouded in black mist.

“That may very likely be caused by the ocean,” suggested Clawbonny.

“You are right. The sea must be there,” was the reply.

“That tint is what we call the blink of open water,” said Johnson.

“Come on, then, to the sledge at once, and let us get to this unknown ocean,” exclaimed Hatteras.

Their few preparations were soon made, and the march resumed. Three hours afterwards they arrived at the coast, and shouted simultaneously, “The sea! the sea!”

“Ay, and open sea!” added Hatteras.

And so it was. The storm had opened wide the Polar Basin, and the loosened packs were drifting in all directions. The icebergs had weighed anchor, and were sailing out into the open sea.

This new ocean stretched far away out of sight, and not a single island or continent was visible.

On the east and west the coast formed two capes or headlands, which sloped gently down to the sea. In the centre, a projecting rock formed a small natural bay, sheltered on three sides, into which a wide river fell, bearing in its bosom the melted snows of winter.

After a careful survey of the coast, Hatteras determined to launch the sloop that very day, and to unpack the sledge, and get everything on board. The tent was soon put up, and a comfortable repast prepared. This important business despatched, work commenced; and all hands were so expeditious and willing, that by five o’clock nothing more remained to be done. The sloop lay rocking gracefully in the little bay, and all the cargo was on board except the tent, and what was required for the night’s encampment.

The sight of the sloop suggested to Clawbonny the propriety of giving Altamont’s name to the little bay. His proposition to that effect met with unanimous approval, and the port was forthwith dignified by the title of Altamont Harbour.

According to the Doctor’s calculations the travellers were now only 9° distant from the Pole. They had gone over two hundred miles from Victoria Bay to Altamont Harbour, and were in latitude 87° 5’ and longitude 118° 35’.

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