The Field of Ice, by Jules Verne

Chapter 15

The North-West Passage.

Next morning, Altamont Bell and the Doctor repaired to the Porpoise. There was no lack of wood, for, shattered as the old “three-master” had been by the icebergs, she could still supply the principal parts of a new ship, and the carpenter began his task immediately.

In the end of May, the temperature again rose, and spring returned for good and all. Rain fell copiously, and before long the melting snow was running down every little slope in falls and cascades.

Hatteras could not contain his delight at these signs of a general thaw among the ice-fields, for an open sea would bring him liberty. At last he might hope to ascertain for himself whether his predecessors were correct in their assertions about a polar basin.

This was a frequent topic of thought and conversation with him, and one evening when he was going over all the old familiar arguments in support of his theory, Altamont took up the subject, and declared his opinion that the polar basin extended west as well as east. But it was impossible for the American and Englishman, to talk long about anything without coming to words, so intensely national were both. Dr. Kane was the first bone of contention on this occasion, for the jealous Englishman was unwilling to grant his rival the glory of being a discoverer, alleging his belief that though the brave adventurer had gone far north, it was by mere chance he had made a discovery.

“Chance!” interrupted Altamont, hotly. “Do you mean to assert that it is not to Kane’s energy and science that we owe his great discovery?”

“I mean to say that Dr. Kane’s name is not worth mentioning in a country made illustrious by such names as Parry, and Franklin, and Ross, and Belcher, and Penny; in a country where the seas opened the North- West Passage to an Englishman — McClure!”

“McClure!” exclaimed the American. “Well, if ever chance favoured anyone it was that McClure. Do you pretend to deny it?”

“I do,” said Hatteras, becoming quite excited. “It was his courage and perseverance in remaining four whole winters among the ice.”

“I believe that, don’t I?” said Altamont, sneeringly. “He was caught among the bergs and could not get away; but didn’t he after all abandon his ship, the Investigator, and try to get back home? Besides, putting the man aside, what is the value of his discovery? I maintain that the North-West Passage is still undiscovered, for not a single ship to this day has ever sailed from Behring’s Straits to Baffin’s Bay!”

The fact was indisputable, but Hatteras started to his feet, and said —

“I will not permit the honour of an English captain to be attacked in my presence any longer!”

“You will not permit!” echoed Altamont, also springing erect. “But these are facts, and it is out of your power to destroy them!”

“Sir!” shouted Hatteras, pale with rage.

“My friends!” interposed the Doctor; “pray be calm. This is a scientific point we are discussing.”

But Hatteras was deaf to reason now, and said angrily —

“I’ll tell you the facts, sir.”

“And I’ll tell you,” retorted the irate American.

“Gentlemen,” said Clawbonny, in a firm tone; “allow me to speak, for I know the facts of the case as well as and perhaps better than you, and I can state them impartially.”

“Yes, yes!” cried Bell and Johnson, who had been anxiously watching the strife.

“Well, go on,” said Altamont, finding himself in the minority, while Hatteras simply made a sign of acquiescence, and resumed his seat.

The Doctor brought a chart and spread it out on the table, that his auditors might follow his narration intelligibly, and be able to judge the merits of McClure for themselves.

“It was in 1848,” he said, “that two vessels, the Herald and the Plover, were sent out in search of Franklin, but their efforts proving ineffectual, two others were despatched to assist them — the Investigator, in command of McClure, and the Enterprise, in command of Captain Collison. The Investigator arrived first in Behring’s Straits, and without waiting for her consort, set out with the declared purpose to find Franklin or the North-West Passage. The gallant young officer hoped to push north as far as Melville Sound, but just at the extremity of the Strait, he was stopped by an insurmountable barrier of ice, and forced to winter there. During the long, dreary months, however, he and his officers undertook a journey over the ice-field, to make sure of its communicating with Melville Sound.”

“Yes, but he did not get through,” said Altamont.

“Stop a bit,” replied Clawbonny; “as soon as a thaw set in, McClure renewed his attempt to bring his ship into Melville Sound, and had succeeded in getting within twenty miles, when contrary winds set in, and dragged her south with irresistible violence. This decided the captain to alter his course. He determined to go in a westerly direction; but after a fearful struggle with icebergs, he stuck fast in the first of the series of straits which end in Baffin’s Bay, and was obliged to winter in Mercy Bay. His provisions would only hold out eighteen months longer, but he would not give up. He set out on a sledge, and reached Melville Island, hoping to fall in with some ship or other, but all he found in Winter Harbour was a cairn, which contained a document, stating that Captain Austin’s lieutenant, McClintock, had been there the preceding year. McClure replaced this document by another, which stated his intention of returning to England by the North-West Passage he had discovered, by Lancaster Sound and Baffin’s Bay, and that in the event of his not being heard of, he might be looked for north or west of Melville Island. Then he went back to Mercy Bay with undaunted courage, to pass a third winter. By the beginning of March his stock of provisions was so reduced in consequence of the utter scarcity of game through the severity of the season, that McClure resolved to send half his men to England, either by Baffin’s Bay or by McKenzie River and Hudson’s Bay. The other half would manage to work the vessel to Europe. He kept all his best sailors, and selected for departure only those to whom a fourth winter would have been fatal. Everything was arranged for their leaving, and the day fixed, when McClure, who was out walking with Lieutenant Craswell, observed a man running towards them, flinging up his arms and gesticulating frantically, and on getting nearer recognized him as Lieutenant Prim, officer on board the Herald, one of the ships he had parted with in Behring’s Straits two years before.

Captain Kellett, the Commander, had reached Winter Harbour, and finding McClure’s document in the cairn, had dispatched his lieutenant in search of him. McClure accompanied him back, and arranged with the captain to send him his batch of invalids. Lieutenant Craswell took charge of these and conveyed them safely to Winter Harbour. Leaving them there he went across the ice four hundred and seventy miles, and arrived at Isle Beechy, where, a few days afterwards, he took passage with twelve men on board the Phoenix, and reached London safely on the 7th of October, 1853, having traversed the whole extent between Behring’s Straits and Cape Farewell.”

“Well, if arriving on one side and leaving at the other is not going through, I don’t know what is!” said Hatteras.

“Yes, but he went four hundred and seventy miles over ice-fields,” objected Altamont.

“What of that?”

“Everything; that is the gist of the whole argument. It was not the Investigator that went through.”

“No,” replied Clawbonny, “for, at the close of the fourth winter, McClure was obliged to leave her among the ice.”

“Well, in maritime expeditions the vessel has to get through, and not the man; and if ever the Northwest Passage is practicable, it will be for ships and not sledges. If a ship cannot go, a sloop must.”

“A sloop!” exclaimed Hatteras, discovering a hidden meaning in the words.

“Altamont,” said the Doctor, “your distinction is simply puerile, and in that respect we all consider that you are in the wrong.”

“You may easily do that,” returned the American. “It is four against one, but that will not prevent me from holding my own opinion.”

“Keep it and welcome, but keep it to yourself, if you please, for the future,” exclaimed Hatteras.

“And pray what right have you to speak to me like this, sir?” shouted Altamont, in a fury.

“My right as captain,” returned Hatteras, equally angry.

“Am I to submit to your orders, then?”

“Most assuredly, and woe to you if ——”

The Doctor did not allow him to proceed, for he really feared the two antagonists might come to blows. Bell and Johnson seconded his endeavours to make peace, and, after a few conciliatory words, Altamont turned on his heel, and walked carelessly away, whistling “Yankee Doodle.” Hatteras went outside, and paced up and down with rapid strides. In about an hour he came back, and retired to bed without saying another word.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24