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The Field of Ice, Page 2

Jules Verne


  It was a bold project of Hatteras to push his way to the North Pole,and gain for his country the honour and glory of its discovery. Buthe had done all that lay in human power now, and, after havingstruggled for nine months against currents and tempests, shatteringicebergs and breaking through almost insurmountable barriers, amidthe cold of an unprecedented winter, after having outdistanced allhis predecessors and accomplished half his task, he suddenly saw allhis hopes blasted. The treachery, or rather the despondency, of hisworn-out crew, and the criminal folly of one or two leading spiritsamong them had left him and his little band of men in a terriblesituation--helpless in an icy desert, two thousand five hundredmiles away from their native land, and without even a ship toshelter them.

  However, the courage of Hatteras was still undaunted. The three menwhich were left him were the


  best on board his brig, and while they remained he might venture tohope.

  After the cheerful, manly words of the captain, the Doctor felt thebest thing to be done was to look their prospects fairly in theface, and know the exact state of things. Accordingly, leaving hiscompanions, he stole away alone down to the scene of the explosion.

  Of the Forward, the brig that had been so carefully built and hadbecome so dear, not a vestige remained. Shapeless blackenedfragments, twisted bars of iron,


  cable ends still smouldering, and here and there in the distancespiral wreaths of smoke, met his eye on all sides. His cabin and allhis precious treasures were gone, his books, and instruments, andcollections reduced to ashes. As he stood thinking mournfully of hisirreparable loss, he was joined by Johnson, who grasped his offeredhand in speechless sorrow.

  "What's to become of us?" asked the Doctor.

  "Who can tell!" was the old sailor's reply.

  "Anyhow," said Clawbonny, "do not let us despair! Let us bemen!"

  "Yes, Mr. Clawbonny, you are right. Now is the time to show ourmettle. We are in a bad plight, and how to get out of it, that isthe question."

  "Poor old brig!" exclaimed the Doctor. "I had grown soattached to her. I loved her as one loves a house where he has spenta life-time."

  "Ay! it's strange what a hold those planks and beams get on afellow's heart."

  "And the long-boat--is that burnt?" asked the Doctor.

  "No, Mr. Clawbonny. Shandon and his gang have carried it off."

  "And the pirogue?"

  "Shivered into a thousand pieces? Stop. Do you see those bits ofsheet-iron? That is all that remains of it."

  "Then we have nothing but the Halkett-boat?"

  "Yes, we have that still, thanks to your idea of taking it withyou."

  "That isn't much," said the Doctor.

  "Oh, those base traitors!" exclaimed Johnson. "Heaven punishthem as they deserve!"

  "Johnson," returned the Doctor, gently, "we must not forgethow sorely they have been tried. Only the best remain good in theevil day; few can stand trouble. Let us pity our fellow-sufferers,and not curse them."

  For the next few minutes both were silent, and then Johnson askedwhat had become of the sledge.

  "We left it about a mile off," was the reply.

  "In charge of Simpson?"

  "No, Simpson is dead, poor fellow!"

  "Simpson dead!"

  "Yes, his strength gave way entirely, and he first sank."

  "Poor Simpson! And yet who knows if he isn't rather to beenvied?"

  "But, for the dead man we have left behind, we have brought back adying one."

  "A dying man?"

  "Yes, Captain Altamont."

  And in a few words he informed Johnson of their discovery.

  "An American!" said Johnson, as the recital was ended.

  "Yes, everything goes to prove that. But I wonder what thePorpoise was, and what brought her in these seas?"

  "She rushed on to her ruin like the rest of foolhardy adventurers;but, tell me, did you find the coal?"

  The Doctor shook his head sadly.

  "No coal! not a vestige! No, we did not even get as far as theplace mentioned by Sir Edward Belcher."

  "Then we have no fuel whatever?" said the old sailor.


  "And no provisions?"


  "And no ship to make our way back to England?"

  It required courage indeed to face these gloomy realities, but,after a moment's silence, Johnson said again--

  "Well, at any rate we know exactly how we stand. The first thingto be done now is to make a hut, for we can't stay long exposed tothis temperature."

  "Yes, we'll soon manage that with Bell's help," replied theDoctor. "Then we must go and find the sledge, and bring back theAmerican, and have a consultation with Hatteras."

  "Poor captain," said Johnson, always forgetting his owntroubles, "how he must feel it!"

  Clawbonny and Bell found Hatteras standing motionless, his armsfolded in his usual fashion. He seemed gazing into space, but hisface had recovered its calm, self-possessed expression. His faithfuldog stood beside him, like his master, apparently insensible to thebiting cold, though the temperature was 32 degrees below zero.

  Bell lay on the ice in an almost inanimate condition. Johnson had totake vigorous measures to rouse him, but at last, by dint of shakingand rubbing him with snow, he succeeded.

  "Come, Bell," he cried, "don't give way like this. Exertyourself, my man; we must have a talk about our situation, and weneed a place to put our heads in. Come and help me, Bell. Youhaven't forgotten how to make a snow hut, have you? There is aniceberg all ready to hand; we've only got to hollow it out.Let's set to work; we shall find that is the best remedy for us."

  Bell tried to shake off his torpor and help his comrade, while Mr.Clawbonny undertook to go and fetch the sledge and the dogs.

  "Will you go with him, captain?" asked Johnson.

  "No, my friend," said Hatteras, in a gentle tone, "if theDoctor will kindly undertake the task. Before the day ends I mustcome to some resolution, and I need to be alone to think. Go. Domeantime whatever you think best. I will deal with the future."


  Johnson went back to the Doctor, and said--

  "It's very strange, but the captain seems quite to have got overhis anger. I never heard him speak so gently before."

  "So much the better," said Clawbonny. "Believe me, Johnson,that man can save us yet."

  And drawing his hood as closely round his head as possible, theDoctor seized his iron-tipped staff, and set out without furtherdelay.

  Johnson and Bell commenced operations immediately. They had simplyto dig a hole in the heart of a great block of ice; but it was noteasy work, owing to the extreme hardness of the material. However,this very hardness guaranteed the solidity of the dwelling, and thefurther their labours advanced the more they became sheltered.

  Hatteras alternately paced up and down, and stood motionless,evidently shrinking from any approach to the scene of explosion.

  In about an hour the Doctor returned, bringing with him Altamontlying on the sledge, wrapped up in the folds of the tent. The poordogs were so exhausted from starvation that they could scarcely drawit along, and they had begun to gnaw their harness. It was, indeed,high time for feasts and men to take food and rest.

  While the hut was being still further dug out, the Doctor wentforaging about, and had the good fortune to find a little stove,almost undamaged by the explosion. He soon restored it to workingtrim, and, by the time the hut was completed, had filled it withwood and got it lighted. Before long it was roaring, and diffusing agenial warmth on all sides. The American was brought in and laid onblankets, and the four Englishmen seated themselves round the fireto enjoy their scanty meal of biscuit and hot tea, the last remainsof the provisions on the sledge. Not a word was spoken by Hatteras,and the others respected his silence.

  When the meal was over, the Doctor rose and went out, making a signto Johnson to follow.

  "Come, Johnson," he
said, "we will take an inventory of all wehave left. We must know exactly how we are off, and our treasuresare scattered in all directions; so we had better begin, and pickthem up as fast as possible, for the snow may fall at any moment,and then it would be quite useless to look for anything."

  "Don't let us lose a minute, then," replied Johnson. "Fireand food--those are our chief wants."

  "Very well, you take one side and I'll take the other, andwe'll search from the centre to the circumference."

  This task occupied two hours, and all they discovered was a littlesalt meat, about 50 lbs. of pemmican, three sacks of biscuits, asmall stock of chocolate, five or six pints of brandy, and about 2lbs. of coffee, picked up bean by bean off the ice.

  Neither blankets, nor hammocks, nor clothing--all had been consumedin the devouring flame.

  This slender store of provisions would hardly last three weeks, andthey had wood enough to supply the stove for about the same time.

  The tired-out dogs were harnessed sorely againsttheir will, and before long returned bringing the few but precioustreasures found among the debris of the brig.--P.9]

  Now that the inventory was made, the next business was to fetch thesledge. The tired-out dogs were harnessed sorely against their will,and before long returned bringing the few but precious treasuresfound among the debris of the brig. These were safely deposited inthe hut, and then Johnson and Clawbonny, half-frozen with theirwork, resumed their places beside their companions in misfortune.