A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille

Chapter III

A World of Fire and Desolation

At the sight of that deep-red glow various feelings arose within us: in me there was new dejection; in Agnew there was stronger hope. I could not think but that it was our ship that was on fire, and was burning before our eyes. Agnew thought that it was some burning forest, and that it showed our approach to some habitable and inhabited land. For hour after hour we watched, and all the time the current drew us nearer, and the glow grew brighter and more intense. At last we were too weak to watch any longer, and we fell asleep.

On waking our first thoughts were about the fire, and we looked eagerly around. It was day, but the sky was as gloomy as ever, and the fire was there before our eyes, bright and terrible. We could now see it plainly, and discern the cause also. The fire came from two points, at some distance apart — two peaks rising above the horizon, from which there burst forth flames and smoke with incessant explosions. All was now manifest. It was no burning ship, no blazing forest, no land inhabited by man: those blazing peaks were two volcanoes in a state of active eruption, and at that sight I knew the worst.

“I know where we are now,” I said, despairingly.

“Where?” asked Agnew.

“That,” said I, “is the antarctic continent.”

“The antarctic fiddlestick,” said he, contemptuously. “It is far more likely to be some volcanic island in the South Sea. There’s a tremendous volcano in the Sandwich Islands, and these are something like it.”

“I believe,” said I, “that these are the very volcanoes that Sir James Ross discovered last year.”

“Do you happen to know where he found them?” Agnew asked.

“I do not,” I answered.

“Well, I do,” said he, “and they’re thousands of miles away from this. They are south latitude 77 degrees, east longitude 167 degrees; while we, as I guess, are about south latitude 40 degrees, east longitude 60 degrees.”

“At any rate,” said I, “we’re drifting straight toward them.”

“So I see,” said Agnew, dryly. “At any rate, the current will take us somewhere. We shall find ourselves carried past these volcanic islands, or through them, and then west to the Cape of Good Hope. Besides, even here we may find land with animals and vegetation; who knows?”

“What! amid all this ice?” I cried. “Are you mad?”

“Mad?” said he; “I should certainly go mad if I hadn’t hope.”

“Hope!” I repeated; “I have long since given up hope.”

“Oh, well,” said he, “enjoy your despair, and don’t try to deprive me of my consolation. My hope sustains me, and helps me to cheer you up. It would never do, old fellow, for both of us to knock under.”

I said nothing more, nor did Agnew. We drifted on, and all our thoughts were taken up with the two volcanoes, toward which we were every moment drawing nearer. As we approached they grew larger and larger, towering up to a tremendous height. I had seen Vesuvius and Stromboli and AEtna and Cotopaxi; but these appeared far larger than any of them, not excepting the last. They rose, like the Peak of Teneriffe, abruptly from the sea, with no intervening hills to dwarf or diminish their proportions. They were ten or twelve miles apart, and the channel of water in which we were drifting flowed between them.

Here the ice and snow ended. We thus came at last to land; but it was a land that seemed more terrible than even the bleak expanse of ice and snow that lay behind, for nothing could be seen except a vast and drear accumulation of lava-blocks of every imaginable shape, without a trace of vegetation — uninhabited, uninhabitable, and unpassable to man. But just where the ice ended and the rocks began there was a long, low reef, which projected for more than a quarter of a mile into the water, affording the only possible landing-place within sight. Here we decided to land, so as to rest and consider what was best to be done.

Here we landed, and walked up to where rugged lava-blocks prevented any further progress. But at this spot our attention was suddenly arrested by a sight of horror. It was a human figure lying prostrate, face downward.

At this sight there came over us a terrible sensation. Even Agnew’s buoyant soul shrank back, and we stared at each other with quivering lips. It was some time before we could recover ourselves; then we went to the figure, and stooped down to examine it.

The clothes were those of a European and a sailor; the frame was emaciated and dried up, till it looked like a skeleton; the face was blackened and all withered, and the bony hands were clinched tight. It was evidently some sailor who had suffered shipwreck in these frightful solitudes, and had drifted here to starve to death in this appalling wilderness. It was a sight which seemed ominous of our own fate, and Agnew’s boasted hope, which had so long upheld him, now sank down into a despair as deep as my own. What room was there now for hope, or how could we expect any other fate than this?

At length I began to search the pockets of the deceased.

“What are you doing?” asked Agnew, in a hoarse voice.

“I’m trying to find out who he is,” I said. “Perhaps there may be papers.”

As I said this I felt something in the breast-pocket of his jacket, and drew it forth. It was a leather pocket-book, mouldy and rotten like the clothing. On opening it, it fell to pieces. There was nothing in it but a piece of paper, also mouldy and rotten. This I unfolded with great care, and saw writing there, which, though faded, was still legible. It was a letter, and there were still signs of long and frequent perusals, and marks, too, which looked as though made by tears — tears, perhaps of the writer, perhaps of the reader: who can tell? I have preserved this letter ever since, and I now fasten it here upon this sheet of my manuscript.

THE LETTER.

“Bristol April 20. 1820.

“my darling tom

“i writ you these few lines in hast i don like youar gon a walen an in the south sea dont go darlin tom or mebbe ill never se you agin for ave bad drems of you darlin tom an im afraid so don go my darlin tom but come back an take anoth ship for America baby i as wel as ever but mises is pa an as got a new tooth an i think yo otnt go a walen o darlin tom * * * sea as the wages was i in New York an better go thar an id like to go ther for good for they gives good wages in America. O come back my Darlin tom and take me to America an the baby an weel all live an love an di together

“Your loving wife Polley Reed.”

I began to read this, but there came a lump in my throat, and I had to stop. Agnew leaned on my shoulder, and we both read it in silence. He rubbed the back of his hand over his eyes and drew a long breath. Then he walked away for a little distance, and I put the letter carefully away in my own pocket-book. After a little while Agnew came back.

“More,” said he, “do you remember any of the burial-service?”

I understood his meaning at once.

“Yes,” I said, “some of it — a good deal of it, I think.”

“That’s good,” said he. “Let’s put the poor fellow under ground.”

“It would be hard to do that,” I said; “we’ll have to bury him in the snow.”

At this Agnew went off for a little distance and clambered over the rocks. He was not gone long. When he returned he said, “I’ve found some crumbled pumice-stone; we can scoop a grave for him there.”

We then raised the body and carried it to the place which Agnew had found. So emaciated was the poor dead sailor that his remains were no heavier than a small boy. On reaching the spot, we found the crumbled pumice-stone. We placed the body in a crevice among the lava rocks, and then I said what I could remember of the burial-service. After this we carried in our hands the crumbled pumice-stone until we had covered the body, and thus gave the poor fellow a Christian burial.

We then returned to the shore.

“More, old fellow,” said Agnew, “I feel the better for this; the service has done me good.”

“And me too,” said I. “It has reminded me of what I had forgotten. This world is only a part of life. We may lose it and yet live on. There is another world; and if we can only keep that in our minds we sha’n’t be so ready to sink into despair — that is, I sha’n’t. Despair is my weakness; you are more hopeful.”

“Yes,” said Agnew, solemnly; “but my hope thus far has referred only to the safety of my skin. After this I shall try to think of my soul, and cultivate, not the hope of escape, but the hope full of immortality. Yes, More, after all we shall live, if not in England, then, let us hope, in heaven.”

There was a long silence after this — that kind of silence which one may preserve who is at the point of death.

“I wonder how he got here?” said Agnew, at last. “The letter mentions a whaler. No doubt the ship has been driven too far south; it has foundered; he has escaped in a boat, either alone or with others; he has been carried along this channel, and has landed here, afraid to go any farther.”

“But his boat, what has become of that?”

“His boat! That must have gone long ago. The letter was written in 1820. At any rate, let’s look around.”

We did so. After some search we found fragments of a rotted rope attached to a piece of rock.

“That,” said Agnew, “must have been fastened to the boat; and as for the boat herself, she has long ago been swept away from this.”

“What shall we do now?” I said, after a long silence.

“There’s only one thing,” said Agnew. “We must go on.”

“Go on?” I asked, in wonder.

“Certainly,” said he, confidently. “Will you stay here? No. Will you go back? You can’t. We must, therefore, go on. That is our only hope.”

“Hope!” I cried. “Do you still talk of hope?”

“Hope?” said Agnew; “of course. Why not? There are no limits to hope, are there? One can hope anything anywhere. It is better to die while struggling like a man, full of hope and energy than to perish in inaction and despair. It is better to die in the storm and furious waters than to waste away in this awful place. So come along. Let’s drift as before. Let’s see where this channel will take us. It will certainly take us somewhere. Such a stream as this must have some outlet.”

“This stream,” said I, “will take us to death, and death only. The current grows swifter every hour. I’ve heard some old yarn of a vast opening at each of the poles, or one of them, into which the waters of the ocean pour. They fall into one, and some say they go through and come out at the other.”

Agnew laughed.

“That,” said he, “is a madman’s dream. In the first place, I don’t believe that we are approaching the south, but the north. The warmth of the climate here shows that. Yes, we are drawing north. We shall soon emerge into warm waters and bright skies. So come along, and let us lose no more time.”

I made no further objection. There was nothing else to be done, and at the very worst we could not be in greater danger while drifting on than in remaining behind. Soon, therefore, we were again in the boat, and the current swept us on as before.

The channel now was about four miles wide. On either side arose the lofty volcanoes vomiting forth flames and smoke with furious explosions; vast stones were hurled up into the air from the craters; streams of molten lava rolled down, and at intervals there fell great showers of ashes. The shores on either side were precipitous and rugged beyond all description, looking like fiery lava streams which had been arrested by the flood, and cooled into gloomy, overhanging cliffs. The lava rock was of a deep, dull slate-color, which at a distance looked black; and the blackness which thus succeeded to the whiteness of the snow behind us seemed like the funeral pall of nature. Through scenes like these we drifted on, and the volcanoes on either side of the channel towered on high with their fiery floods of lava, their incessant explosions, their fierce outbursts of flames, and overhead there rolled a dense black canopy of smoke — altogether forming a terrific approach to that unknown and awful pathway upon which we were going. So we passed this dread portal, and then there lay before us — what? Was it a land of life or a land of death? Who could say?

It was evening when we passed through. Night came on, and the darkness was illuminated by the fiery glow of the volcanic flames. Worn out with fatigue, we fell asleep. So the night passed, and the current bore us on until, at length, the morning came. We awoke, and now, for the first time in many days, we saw the face of the sun. The clouds had at last broken, the sky was clear, and behind us the sun was shining. That sight told us all. It showed us where we were going.

I pointed to the sun.

“Look there,” said I. “There is the sun in the northern sky — behind us. We have been drifting steadily toward the south.”

At this Agnew was silent, and sat looking back for a long time. There we could still see the glow of the volcanic fires, though they were now many miles away; while the sun, but lately risen, was lying on a course closer to the horizon than we had ever seen it before.

“We are going south,” said I— “to the South Pole. This swift current can have but one ending — there may be an opening at the South Pole, or a whirlpool like the Maelstrom.”

Agnew looked around with a smile.

“All these notions,” said he, “are dreams, or theories, or guesses. There is no evidence to prove them. Why trouble yourself about a guess? You and I can guess, and with better reason; for we have now, it seems, come farther south than any human being who has ever lived. Do not imagine that the surface of the earth is different at the poles from what it is anywhere else. If we get to the South Pole we shall see there what we have always seen — the open view of land or water, and the boundary of the horizon. As for this current, it seems to me like the Gulf Stream, and it evidently does an important work in the movement of the ocean waters. It pours on through vast fields of ice on its way to other oceans, where it will probably become united with new currents. Theories about openings at the poles, or whirlpools, must be given up. Since the Maelstrom has been found to be a fiction, no one need believe in any other whirlpool. For my own part, I now believe that this current will bear us on, due south, over the pole, and then still onward, until at last we shall find ourselves in the South Pacific Ocean. So cheer up — don’t be downhearted; there’s still hope. We have left the ice and snow behind, and already the air is warmer. Cheer up; we may find our luck turn at any moment.”

To this I had no reply to make. Agnew’s confidence seemed to me to be assumed, and certainly did not alleviate my own deep gloom, nor was the scene around calculated to rouse me in the slightest degree out of my despair. The channel had now lessened to a width of not more than two miles; the shores on either side were precipitous cliffs, broken by occasional declivities, but all of solid rock, so dark as to be almost black, and evidently of volcanic origin. At times there arose rugged eminences, scarred and riven, indescribably dismal and appalling. There was not only an utter absence of life here in these abhorrent regions, but an actual impossibility of life which was enough to make the stoutest heart quail. The rocks looked like iron. It seemed a land of iron penetrated by this ocean stream which had made for itself a channel, and now bore us onward to a destination which was beyond all conjecture.

Through such scenes we drifted all that day. Night came, and in the skies overhead there arose a brilliant display of the aurora australis, while toward the north the volcanic fires glowed with intense lustre. That night we slept. On awakening we noticed a change in the scene. The shores, though still black and forbidding, were no longer precipitous, but sloped down gradually to the water; the climate was sensibly milder, and far away before us there arose a line of giant mountains, whose summits were covered with ice and snow that gleamed white and purple in the rays of the sun.

Suddenly Agnew gave a cry, and pointed to the opposite shore.

“Look!” he cried — “do you see? They are men!”

I looked, and there I saw plainly some moving figures that were, beyond a doubt, human beings.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37