The Field of Ice, by Jules Verne

Chapter 23

The English Flag

For a few seconds they seemed stupefied, and then a cry of “Hatteras!” broke from every lip.

On all sides, nothing was visible but the tempestuous ocean. Duk barked desperately, and Bell could hardly keep him from leaping into the waves.

“Take the helm, Altamont,” said the Doctor, “and let us try our utmost to find our poor captain.”

Johnson and Bell seized the oars, and rowed about for more than an hour; but their search was vain — Hatteras was lost!

Lost! and so near the Pole, just as he had caught sight of the goal!

The Doctor called, and shouted, and fired signals, and Duk made piteous lamentations; but there was no response. Clawbonny could bear up no longer; he buried his head in his hands, and fairly wept aloud.

At such a distance from the coast, it was impossible Hatteras could reach it alive, without an oar or even so much as a spar to help him; if ever he touched the haven of his desire, it would be as a swollen, mutilated corpse!

Longer search was useless, and nothing remained but to resume the route north. The tempest was dying out, and about five in the morning on the 11th of July, the wind fell, and the sea gradually became calm. The sky recovered its polar clearness, and less than three miles away the land appeared in all its grandeur.

The new continent was only an island, or rather a volcano, fixed like a lighthouse on the North Pole of the world.

The mountain was in full activity, pouring out a mass of burning stones and glowing rock. At every fresh eruption there was a convulsive heaving within, as if some mighty giant were respiring, and the masses ejected were thrown up high into the air amidst jets of bright flame, streams of lava rolling down the sides in impetuous torrents. In one part, serpents of fire seemed writhing and wriggling amongst smoking rocks, and in another the glowing liquid fell in cascades, in the midst of purple vapour, into a river of fire below, formed of a thousand igneous streams, which emptied itself into the sea, the waters hissing and seething like a boiling cauldron.

Apparently there was only one crater to the volcano, out of which the columns of fire issued, streaked with forked lightning. Electricity seemed to have something to do with this magnificent panorama.

Above the panting flames waved an immense plume-shaped cloud of smoke, red at its base and black at its summit. It rose with incomparable majesty, and unrolled in thick volumes.

The sky was ash-colour to a great height, and it was evident that the darkness that had prevailed while the tempest lasted, which had seemed quite inexplicable to the Doctor, was owing to the columns of cinders overspreading the sun like a thick curtain. He remembered a similar phenomenon which occurred in the Barbadoes, where the whole island was plunged in profound obscurity by the mass of cinders ejected from the crater of Isle St. Vincent.

This enormous ignivomous rock in the middle of the sea was six thousand feet high, just about the altitude of Hecla.

It seemed to rise gradually out of the water as the boat got nearer. There was no trace of vegetation, indeed there was no shore; the rock ran straight down to the sea.

“Can we land?” said the Doctor.

“The wind is carrying us right to it,” said Altamont. “But I don’t see an inch of land to set our foot upon.”

“It seems so at this distance,” said Johnson; “but we shall be sure to find some place to run in our boat at, and that is all we want.”

“Let us go on, then,” said Clawbonny, dejectedly.

He had no heart now for anything. The North Pole was indeed before his eyes, but not the man who had discovered it.

As they got nearer the island, which was not more than eight or ten miles in circumference, the navigators noticed a tiny fiord, just large enough to harbour their boat, and made towards it immediately. They feared their captain’s dead body would meet their eyes on the coast, and yet it seemed difficult for a corpse to lie on it, for there was no shore, and the sea broke on steep rocks, which were covered with cinders above watermark.

At last the little sloop glided gently into the narrow opening between two sandbanks just visible above the water, where she would be safe from the violence of the breakers; but before she could be moored, Duk began howling and barking again in the most piteous manner, as if calling on the cruel sea and stony rocks to yield up his lost master. The Doctor tried to calm him by caresses, but in vain. The faithful beast, as if he would represent the captain, sprang on shore with a tremendous bound, sending a cloud of cinders after him.

“Duk! Duk!” called Clawbonny.

But Duk had already disappeared.

After the sloop was made fast, they all got out and went after him. Altamont was just going to climb to the top of a pile of stones, when the Doctor exclaimed, “Listen!”

Duk was barking vehemently some distance off, but his bark seemed full of grief rather than fury.

“Has he come on the track of some animal, do you think? “ asked Johnson.

“No, no!” said Clawbonny, shuddering. “His bark is too sorrowful; it is the dog’s tear. He has found the body of Hatteras.”

They all four rushed forward, in spite of the blinding cinder-dust, and came to the far-end of a fiord, where they discovered the dog barking round a corpse wrapped in the British flag!

“Hatteras! Hatteras!” cried the Doctor, throwing himself on the body of his friend. But next minute he started up with an indescribable cry, and shouted, “Alive! alive!”

“Yes!” said a feeble voice; “yes, alive at the North Pole, on Queen’s Island.”

“Hurrah for England!” shouted all with one accord.

“And for America!” added Clawbonny, holding out one hand to Hatteras and the other to Altamont.

Duk was not behind with his hurrah, which was worth quite as much as the others.

For a few minutes the joy of recovery of their captain filled all their hearts, and the poor fellows could not restrain their tears.

The Doctor found, on examination, that he was not seriously hurt. The wind threw him on the coast where landing was perilous work, but, after being driven back more than once into the sea, the hardy sailor had managed to scramble on to a rock, and gradually to hoist himself above the waves.

Then he must have become insensible, for he remembered nothing more except rolling himself in his flag. He only awoke to consciousness with the loud barking and caresses of his faithful Duk.

After a little, Hatteras was able to stand up supported by the Doctor, and tried to get back to the sloop.

He kept exclaiming, “The Pole! the North Pole!”

“You are happy now?” said his friend.

“Yes, happy! And are not you? Isn’t it joy to find yourself here! The ground we tread is round the Pole! The air we breathe is the air that blows round the Pole! The sea we have crossed is the sea which washes the Pole! Oh! the North Pole! the North Pole!”

He had become quite delirious with excitement, and fever burned in his veins. His eyes shone with unnatural brilliancy, and his brain seemed on fire. Perfect rest was what he most needed, for the Doctor found it impossible to quiet him.

A place of encampment must therefore be fixed upon immediately.

Altamont speedily discovered a grotto composed of rocks, which had so fallen as to form a sort of cave. Johnson and Bell carried in provisions, and gave the dogs their liberty.

About eleven o’clock, breakfast, or rather dinner, was ready, consisting of pemmican, salt meat, and smoking-hot tea and coffee.

But Hatteras would do nothing till the exact position of the island was ascertained; so the Doctor and Altamont set to work with their instruments, and found that the exact latitude of the grotto was 89° 59’ 15”. The longitude was of little importance, for all the meridians blended a few hundred feet higher.

The 90° of lat. was then only about three quarters of a mile off, or just about the summit of the volcano.

When the result was communicated to Hatteras, he desired that a formal document might be drawn up to attest the fact, and two copies made, one of which should be deposited on a cairn on the island.

Clawbonny was the scribe, and indited the following document, a copy of which is now among the archives of the Royal Geographical Society of London:—

“On this 11th day of July, 1861, in North latitude 89° 59’ 15” was discovered Queen’s Island at the North Pole, by Captain Hatteras, Commander of the brig Forward of Liverpool, who signs this, as also all his companions.

“Whoever may find this document is requested to forward it to the Admiralty.

“(Signed) JOHN HATTERAS, Commander

of the Forward

“DR. CLAWBONNY

“ALTAMONT, Commander of the Porpoise

“JOHNSON, Boatswain

“BELL, Carpenter.”

“And now, friends, come to table,” said the Doctor, merrily.

Coming to table was just squatting on the ground.

“But who,” said Clawbonny, “would not give all the tables and dining-rooms in the world to dine at 89” 59’ and 15” N. lat.?”

It was an exciting occasion this first meal at the Pole! What neither ancients nor moderns, neither Europeans, nor Americans, nor Asiatics had been able to accomplish was now achieved, and all past sufferings and perils were forgotten in the glow of success.

“But, after all,” said Johnson, after toasts to Hatteras and the North Pole had been enthusiastically drunk, “what is there so very special about the North Pole? Will you tell me, Mr. Clawbonny?”

“Just this, my good Johnson. It is the only point of the globe that is motionless; all the other points are revolving with extreme rapidity.”

“But I don’t see that we are any more motionless here than at Liverpool.”

“Because in both cases you are a party concerned, both in the motion and the rest; but the fact is certain.”

Clawbonny then went on to describe the diurnal and annual motions of the earth — the one round its own axis, the extremities of which are the poles, which is accomplished in twenty-four hours, and the other round the sun, which takes a whole year.

Bell and Johnson listened half incredulously, and couldn’t see why the earth could not have been allowed to keep still, till Altamont informed them that they would then have had neither day nor night, nor spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

“Ay, and worse still,” said Clawbonny, “if the motion chanced to be interrupted, we should fall right into the sun in sixty-four and a half days.”

“What! take sixty-four and a half days, to fall?” exclaimed Johnson.

“Yes, we are ninety-five millions of miles off. But when I say the Pole is motionless, it is not strictly true; it is only so in comparison with the rest of the globe, for it has a certain movement of its own, and completes a circle in about twenty-six thousand years. This comes from the precession of the equinoxes.”

A long and learned talk was started on this subject between Altamont and the Doctor, simplified, however, as much as possible for the benefit of Bell and Johnson.

Hatteras took no part in it, and even when they went on to speculate about the earth’s centre, and discussed several of the theories that had been advanced respecting it, he seemed not to hear; it was evident his thoughts were far away.

Among other opinions put forth was one in our own days, which greatly excited Altamont’s surprise. It was held that there was an immense opening at the poles which led into the heart of the earth, and that it was out of the opening that the light of the Aurora Borealis streamed. This was gravely stated, and Captain Synness, a countryman of our own, actually proposed that Sir Humphrey Davy, Humboldt, and Arago should undertake an expedition through it, but they refused.”

“And quite right too,” said Altamont.

“So say I; but you see, my friends, what absurdities imagination has conjured up about these regions, and how, sooner or later, the simple reality comes to light.”

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