AFTER this conversation they all made themselves as comfortable as they could, and lay down to sleep.
All, except Hatteras; and why could this extraordinary man not sleep like the others?
Was not the purpose of his life attained now? Had he not realized his most daring project? Why could he not rest? Indeed, might not one have supposed that, after the strain his nervous system had undergone, he would long for rest?
But no, he grew more and more excited, and it was not the thought of returning that so affected him. Was he bent on going farther still? Had his passion for travel no limits? Was the world too small for him now he had circumnavigated it.
Whatever might be the cause, he could not sleep; yet this first night at the Pole was clear and calm. The isle was absolutely uninhabited—not a bird was to be seen in this burning atmosphere, not an animal on these scoriae-covered rocks, not a fish in these seething waters. Next morning, when Altamont, and the others awoke, Hatteras was gone. Feeling uneasy at his absence, they hurried out of the grotto in search of him.
There he was standing on a rock, gazing fixedly at the top of the mountain. His instruments were in his hand, and he was evidently calculating the exact longitude and latitude.
The Doctor went towards him and spoke, but it was long before he could rouse him from his absorbing contemplations. At last the captain seemed to understand, and Clawbonny said, while he examined him with a keen scrutinizing glance—
“Let us go round the island. Here we are, all ready for our last excursion.”
“The last!” repeated Hatteras, as if in a dream. “Yes!, the last truly, but,” he added, with more animation, “the most wonderful.”
He pressed both hands on his brow as he spoke, as if to calm the inward tumult.
Just then Altamont and the others came up, and their appearance seemed to dispel the hallucinations under which he was labouring.
“My friends,” he said, in a voice full of emotion, “thanks for your courage, thanks for your perseverance, thanks for your superhuman efforts, through which we are permitted to set our feet on this soil.”
“Captain,” said Johnson, “we have only obeyed orders to you alone belongs the honour.”
“No, no!” exclaimed Hatteras, with a violent outburst of emotion, “to all of you as much as to me! To Altamont as much as any of us, as much as the Doctor himself! Oh, let my heart break in your hands, it cannot contain its joy and gratitude any longer.”
He grasped the hands of his brave companions as he spoke, and paced up and down as if he had lost all self-control.
“We have only done our duty as Englishmen,” said Bell.
“And as friends,” added Clawbonny.
“Yes, but all did not do it,” replied Hatteras “some gave way. However, we must pardon them—pardon both the traitors and those who were led away by them. Poor fellows! I forgive them. You hear me, Doctor?”
“Yes,” replied Clawbonny, beginning to be seriously uneasy at his friend’s excitement.
“I have no wish, therefore,” continued the captain, “that they should lose the little fortune they came so far to seek. No, the original agreement is to remain unaltered, and they shall be rich—if they ever see England again.”
It would have been difficult not to have been touched by the pathetic tone of voice in which Hatteras said this.
“But, captain,” interrupted Johnson, trying to joke, “one would think you were making your will!”
“Perhaps I am,” said Hatteras, gravely.
“And yet you have a long bright career of glory before you!”
“Who knows?” was the reply.
No one answered, and the Doctor did not dare to guess his meaning; but Hatteras soon made them understand it, for presently he said, in a hurried, agitated manner, as if he could scarcely command himself—
“Friends, listen to me. We have done much already, but much yet remains to be done.”
His companions heard him with profound astonishment.
“Yes,” he resumed, “we are close to the Pole, but we are not on it.”
“How do you make that out,” said Altamont.
“Yes,” replied Hatteras, with vehemence, “I said an Englishman should plant his foot on the Pole of the world! I said it, and an Englishman shall.”
“What!” cried Clawbonny.
“We are still 45” from the unknown point,” resumed Hatteras, with increasing animation, “and to that point I shall go.”
“But it is on the summit of the volcano,” said the Doctor.
“I shall go.”
“It is an inaccessible cone!”
“I shall go.”
“But it is a yawning fiery crater!”
“I shall go.”
The tone of absolute determination in which Hatteras pronounced these words it is impossible to describe.
His friends were stupefied, and gazed in terror at the blazing mountain.
At last the Doctor recovered himself, and began to urge and entreat Hatteras to renounce his project. He tried every means his heart dictated, from humble supplications to friendly threats; but he could gain nothing—a sort of frenzy had come over the captain, an absolute monomania about the Pole.
Nothing but violent measures would keep him back from destruction, but the Doctor was unwilling to employ these unless driven to extremity.
He trusted, moreover, that physical impossibilities, insuperable obstacles would bar his further progress, and meantime finding all protestations were useless, he simply said—
“Very well, since you are bent on it, we’ll go too.”
“Yes,” replied Hatteras, “half-way up the mountain, but not a step beyond. You know you have to carry back to England the duplicate of the document in the cairn——”
“It is settled,” said Hatteras, in an imperious tone; “and since the prayers of a friend will not suffice, the captain commands.”
The Doctor did not insist longer, and a few minutes after the little band set out, accompanied by Duke.
It was about eight o’clock when they commenced their difficult ascent; the sky was splendid, and the thermometer stood at 52°.
Hatteras and his dog went first, closely followed by the others.
“I am afraid,” said Johnson to the Doctor.
“No, no, there’s nothing to be afraid of; we are here.”
This singular little island appeared to be of recent formation, and was evidently the product of successive volcanic eruptions. The rocks were all lying loose on the top of each other, and it was a marvel how they preserved their equilibrium. Strictly speaking, the mountain was only a heap of stones thrown down from a height, and the mass of rocks which composed the island had evidently come out of the bowels of the earth.
The earth, indeed, may be compared to a vast cauldron of spherical form, in which, under the influence of a central fire, immense quantities of vapours are generated, which would explode the globe but for the safety-valves outside.
These safety-valves are volcanoes, when one closes another opens; and at the Poles where the crust of the earth is thinner, owing to its being flattened, it is not surprising that a volcano should be suddenly formed by the upheaving of some part of the ocean-bed.
The Doctor, while following Hatteras, was closely following all the peculiarities of the island, and he was further confirmed in his opinion as to its recent formation by the absence of water. Had it existed for centuries, the thermal springs would have flowed from its bosom.
As they got higher, the ascent became more and more difficult, for the flanks of the mountain were almost perpendicular, and it required the utmost care to keep them from falling. Clouds of scoriæ and ashes would whirl round them repeatedly, threatening them with asphyxia, or torrents of lava would bar their passage. In parts where these torrents ran horizontally, the outside had become hardened; while underneath was the boiling lava, and every step the travellers took had first to be tested with the iron-tipped staff to avoid being suddenly plunged into the scalding liquid.
At intervals large fragments of red-hot rock were thrown up from the crater, and burst in the air like bomb-shells, scattering the debris to enormous distances in all directions.
Hatteras, however, climbed up the steepest ascents with surprising agility, disdaining the help of his staff.
He arrived before long at a circular rock, a sort of plateau about ten feet wide. A river of boiling lava surrounded it, except in one part, where it forked away to a higher rock, leaving a narrow passage, through which Hatteras fearlessly passed.
Here he stopped, and his companions managed to rejoin him. He seemed to be measuring with his eye the distance he had yet to get over. Horizontally, he was not more than two hundred yards from the top of the crater, but vertically he had nearly three times that distance to traverse.
The ascent had occupied three hours already. Hatteras showed no signs of fatigue, while the others were almost spent.
The summit of the volcano appeared inaccessible, and the Doctor determined at any price to prevent Hatteras from attempting to proceed. He tried gentle means first, but the captain’s excitement was fast becoming delirium. During their ascent, symptoms of insanity had become more and more marked, and no one could be surprised who knew anything of his previous history.
“Hatteras,” said the Doctor, “it is enough! we cannot go further!”
“Stop, then,” he replied, in a strangely altered voice; “I am going higher.”
“No, it is useless; you are at the Pole already.”
“No, no! higher, higher!”
“My friend, do you know who is speaking to you? It is I, Doctor Clawbonny.”
“Higher, higher!” repeated the madman.
“Very well, we shall not allow it—that is all.”
He had hardly uttered the words before Hatteras, by a superhuman effort, sprang over the boiling lava, and was beyond the reach of his companions.
A cry of horror burst from every lip, for they thought the poor captain must have perished in that fiery gulf; but there he was safe on the other side, accompanied by his faithful Duke, who would not leave him.
He speedily disappeared behind a curtain of smoke, and they heard his voice growing fainter in the distance, shouting—
“To the north! to the north! to the top of Mount Hatteras! Remember Mount Hatteras!”
All pursuit of him was out of the question; it was impossible to leap across the fiery torrent, and equally impossible to get round it. Altamont, indeed, was mad enough to make an attempt, and would certainly have lost his life if the others had not held him back by main force.
“Hatteras! Hatteras!” shouted the Doctor, but no response was heard save the faint bark of Duke.
At intervals, however, a glimpse of him could be caught through the clouds of smoke and showers of ashes. Sometimes his head, sometimes his arm appeared; then he was out of sight again, and a few minutes later was seen higher up clinging to the rocks. His size constantly decreased with the fantastic rapidity of objects rising upwards in the air. In half-an-hour he was only half his size.
The air was full of the deep rumbling noise of the volcano, and the mountain shook and trembled. From time to time a loud fall was heard behind, and the travellers would see some enormous rock rebounding from the heights to engulph itself in the polar basin below.
Hatteras did not even turn once to look back, but marched straight on, carrying his country’s flag attached to his staff. His terrified friends watched every movement, and saw him gradually decrease to microscopic dimensions, while Duke looked no larger than a big rat.
Then came a moment of intense anxiety, for the wind beat down on them an immense sheet of flame, and they could see nothing but the red glare. A cry of agony escaped the Doctor; but an instant afterwards Hatteras reappeared, waving his flag.
For a whole hour this fearful spectacle went on—an hour of battle with unsteady loose rocks and quagmires of ashes, where the foolhardy climber sank up to his waist. Sometimes they saw him hoist himself up by leaning knees and loins against the rocks in narrow, intricate winding paths, and sometimes he would be hanging on by both hands to some sharp crag, swinging to and fro like a withered tuft.
At last he reached the summit of the mountain, the mouth of the crater. Here the Doctor hoped the infatuated man would stop, at any rate, and would, perhaps, recover his senses, and expose himself to no more danger than the descent involved.
Once more he shouted—
There was such a pathos of entreaty in his tone that Altamont felt moved to his inmost soul.
“I’ll save him yet!” he exclaimed; and before Clawbonny could hinder him, he had cleared with a bound the torrent of fire, and was out of sight among the rocks.
Meantime, Hatteras had mounted a rock which overhung the crater, and stood waving his flag amidst showers of stones which rained down on him. Duke was by his side; but the poor beast was growing dizzy in such close proximity to the abyss.
Hatteras balanced his staff in one hand, and with the other sought to find the precise mathematical point where all the meridians of the globe meet, the point on which it was his sublime purpose to plant his foot.
All at once the rock gave way, and he disappeared. A cry of horror broke from his companions, and rang to the top of the mountain. Clawbonny thought his friend had perished, and lay buried for ever in the depths of the volcano. A second—only a second, though it seemed an age—elapsed, and there was Altamont and the dog holding the ill-fated Hatteras! Man and dog had caught him at the very moment when he disappeared in the abyss.
Hatteras was saved! Saved in spite of himself; and half-an-hour later be lay unconscious in the arms of his despairing companions.
When he came to himself, the Doctor looked at him in speechless anguish, for there was no glance of recognition in his eye. It was the eye of a blind man, who gazes without seeing.
“Good heavens!” exclaimed Johnson; “he is blind!”
“No,” replied Clawbonny, “no! My poor friends, we have only saved the body of Hatteras; his soul is left behind on the top of the volcano. His reason is gone!”
“Insane!” exclaimed Johnson and Altamont, in consternation.
“Insane!” replied the Doctor, and the big tears ran down his cheeks.